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The Origin Of Guilds In Ancient India History Essay

Info: 2487 words (10 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jan 2015 in History

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Different authors have given different views regarding the origin of Guilds in Ancient India. According to some Scholars, in the early era roads were not so safe, and the individual merchant had to carry out long 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 Åšreņis, with the leader being known as the Sārthavaha.1 Sometimes the merchants or traders formed a partnership for combined profits, this practice being termed as ‘SambhÅ«ya-Samuthāna’ (as given in law books of Narada and Brhaspati).2 Guilds were mainly formed for safeguarding the traders and merchants, for protecting and preserving certain valuable commercial conventions and for localization of trade and industry. Gautama Dharama Sutra which refers to such organizations for the first time.3

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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.4 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. 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.5

There are quite a few and tentative references to some sort of guild organizations even in Vedic literature, but by the time of the compilation of the Buddhist scriptures guilds positively existed in each important Indian town, and gripped almost all trades and industries.6 In pre-industrial cities, craftsmen tended to form associations based on their trades.7 Usually the founders were free independent master craftsmen.

The earliest craftsmen’s organizations are purported to have been formed in India during the Vedic-period from 2000 – 500 B.C. During the Indian Gupta-period (300 – 600 AD) the craftsmen’s associations were known as Sreni.8 Greek organizations in Ptolemaic Egypt were called koinon. Starting from their third century B.C., origins the Roman collegia spread with the extension of the Empire. The Chinese hanghui probably existed already during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220), but certainly they were present in the Sui Dynasty (589 – 618 AD). Roman craftsmen’s organizations continued to develop in Italy of the middle Ages.9 In Germany they are first mentioned in the tenth century. The German name is Zunft (plural Zünfte). Métiers in France and craft gilds in England emerged in the twelfth century. Craft organizations (senf, sinf) stemmed from the tenth century in Iran, and were seen to spread also in Arabia and Turkish regions under the name futuwwah or fütüvvet.10 900 of the carvers of Benin are said to have founded their own organization.11

According to K. K. Thapalyal, Buddhism and Jainism, which emerged in the 6th century BC, were more egalitarian than Brahmanism that preceded them and provided a better environment for the growth of guilds.12 Material wealth and animals were sacrificed in the Brahmanical yajnas. The Buddhists and Jains did not perform such yajnas. Thus, material wealth and animals were saved and made available for trade and commerce.13 Since the Buddhists and Jains disregarded the social taboos of purity/pollution in mixing and taking food with people of lower Varna’s, they felt less constrained in conducting long distance trade.14

The Gautama Dharmasutra (c. 5th century BC) states that “cultivators, traders, herdsmen, moneylenders, and artisans have authority to lay down rules for their respective classes and the king was to consult their representatives while dealing with matters relating to them.” 15

In the age of Buddha, there was a growth of arts, crafts and industries. The artisans had attained a high degree of specialization. As a result their organization became fairly advanced. The Jatakas mention eighteen corporate bodies.16 Four of them are repeatedly mentioned below:

Carpenter Vaddhaki

Smiths Kammara

Leather worker Chammakara

Painters Chittakara

Others are referred to as men skilled in Arts and Crafts. Rhys Davis has compiled a list of eighteen corporations as follows17:

Workers in Wood

Workers in Metals

Workers in Stone


Workers in Leather

Workers in potters

Ivory Workers



Fishers folks



Cooks and Confectioners

Barbers and Shampooers

Garland makers and Flower sellers


Rush Workers and basket makers

Painters 7

According to R. C. Majumdar, the number of industrial and other corporations in the Post Vedic period was far more than the conventional number mentioned in the Jatakas i.e. Twenty Seven instead of Eighteen. The list given by him is as follows18:

Workers in wood including cabinet makers, wheel wrights, builders of houses, builders of ships and builders of vehicles of all sorts.

Workers in metals including Gold and Silver.

Workers in Stones.

Leather workers.

Ivory workers.

Workers fabricating Hydraulic engines.

Bamboo workers






Rush-workers and Basket makers.







Barbers and Shampooers.

Garland-makers and Flower-sellers.




Robbers and Free-booters.

Forest police who guarded the caravan

Money lenders

Jataka tales as discussed above refer to eighteen guilds, to their heads, to localization of industry and to the hereditary nature of professions. The Jataka stories frequently refer to a son following the craft of his father.19 Often, kula and putta occur as suffixes to craft-names, the former indicating that the whole family adopted a particular craft and the latter that the son followed the craft of his father.20 This ensured regular trained manpower and created more specialization. Here it is pointed out that the hereditary nature of profession in Indian guilds makes them different from the European guilds of the middle ages whose membership was invariably based on the choice of an individual.21

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There are numerous references in Jatakas which refer to sons of the individual workers pursuing the occupation of their fathers.22 It may, however, be pointed out that adopting a family profession was more common with members of craftsmen’s guilds than with members of trader guilds. The economic regulation of the merchant guilds and craft guilds together might be compared to what we should have under the joint regulation of the economic life of our cities by the chambers of commerce and the labor unions of skilled workmen.23

The merchant guilds were the first to appear, in the late 11th and 12th centuries. They were composed of all merchants and traders within the town, including at first the artisans, who in earlier medieval times were also traders.24 As industry in the larger towns began to specialize in various crafts, the earlier merchant guild split up into many craft guilds, each composed of all the citizens engaged in the same trade.25 The earlier merchant guilds disappeared except in towns too small for special craft organizations.

Both types of guilds sought recognition as privileged, self-governing associations. They sought special immunity from outside interference and they achieved it with varying degrees of success.26

The chief purpose of both types of guilds were to preserve their monopoly of the town market against any outsider, to maintain equality among their members by restraining the initiative of the more enterprising; to guarantee the consumer wares of good and uniform quality; and to establish a system of industrial education.27 Before the monopolies were well organized, membership was not exclusive on the contrary, it was important to get as many members as possible. The merchant guild’s monopoly of trade within the town was protected by exemption from all tolls and customs28. Foreign merchants and natives not members of the guild were at a disadvantage in that they had to pay these fees allowed, to sell only to members of the guild, and forbidden to buy certain commodities at all. No foreigner was permitted to practice a trade in a town without becoming a member of his craft guild. The idea of the closed shop is thus no modern invention.29

The attempts of the guilds to maintain equality among their members by guaranteering equal opportunities to buy and sell in the local market took this form of regulations concerning technical processes, hours of labor, wages, number of workmen to be employed, prices and trade practices of all sorts.30 Every effort was made to nip the capitalist spirit in the bud. One regulation common in the merchant guilds guaranteed to every member the right to participate in any purchase made by any other guildsmen; that is, it was considered unfair for any one member to derive advantage from a particular bargain.31

Attempts to corner the market were vigorously opposed and punished. The employment of improved methods of manufacture, due to new inventions or to the use of water power, was frowned upon unless all producers shared alike in the benefits.32 No one might employ his workmen longer than another, nor pay higher wages. The number of men employed was regulated in order to keep the production of all guild shops approximately equal.33 All members charged the same piece for the same goods.

No man could try to get another’s customers or entice his workmen away. Advertising of many kinds was forbidden. This kind of close supervision of trade and industry, which today is called planned economy and is branded as communism, was obviously designed to benefit not so much the consumers as the producers organized in the guilds.34

It became apparent that if the guilds were to be protected in their monopoly of the market they must not only fix fair prices but guarantee the quality of their goods and prevent all kinds of dishonest dealing.35 The inspection by guild wardens of the whole process of manufacture was one of their most important functions. The miller, the baker and the brewer in particular were notorious for their fraudulent practices.36

Different crafts and artisans formed guilds which educated the youngsters of each craft, spinning, weaving, oil-crushing, ship-building, and other industries. The rich guilds maintained armies which accompanied trade caravans. Åšreņibala or Ayudha Åšreņis (Guilds of arms) existed.37 Mandasore inscription of Kumara Gupta (414 – 455 A.D.) refers to a guild of silk-weavers.38 Some members of this guild took to arms. Some were bankers, some supervised endowments and some patronized art and religion. The guilds also acted as courts of law, disputes among members were settled by their own (elected) executives and not by the State tribunals.39

This Mandasore inscription (modern Mandasore in Malva M.P.) gives some interesting information about corporate mobility of the times. Originally they came from Sourashtra in Gujarat.40 Some members learnt archery and became fighters. Some took to religious life. Some became astrologers. Some became ascetics. But all joined in constructing a temple to Sun-god.41 When this temple got damaged then it was repaired by the Guilds Oilmen and artisans find mention. This only shows that there was mobility and flexibility in vocations though the Guild is mentioned prominently as one of silk-weavers.42

In the words of an eminent historian, “The guild in ancient India was not merely the means for the development of arts and crafts. Through autonomy and freedom accorded to it by the law of the land, it became a center of strength and abode of liberal culture and progress, which truly made it a power and ornament of the society.”43

The guilds were registered with the town authority, and the activities of guild members followed strict guidelines called the shreni-dharma. The wealthier guilds employed slaves and hired labourers in addition to their own artisans, though the percentage of such slaves appears to have been small. Guilds had their own seals and insignia.44 They often made lavish donations to Buddhist and Jain monasteries, and some of the finest Buddhist monuments of the period resulted from such patronage. In some areas, such as the Deccan, members of the royal family invested money with a particular guild, and the accruing interest became a regular donation to the Buddhist sangha. This enhanced the political prestige of the guild.45

Silver bent bar coins and silver and copper punch-marked coins came into use in the 5th century BCE. It is not clear whether the coins were issued by a political authority or were the legal tender of moneyers.46 The gradual spread in the same period of a characteristic type of luxury ware, which has come to be known as the northern black polished ware, is an indicator of expanding trade.47 One main trade route followed the Ganges river and crossed the Indo-Gangetic watershed and the Punjab to Taxila and beyond. Another extended from the Ganges valley via Ujjain and the Narmada valley to the western coast or, alternatively, southward to the Deccan. The route to the Ganges delta became more popular, increasing maritime contact with ports on the eastern coast of India.48 The expansion of trade and consequently of towns resulted in an increase in the number of artisans and merchants; some eventually formed guilds (Srenis), each of which tended to inhabit a particular part of a town. The guild system encouraged specialization of labour and the hereditary principle in professions, which was also a characteristic of caste functioning. The practice of usury encouraged the activity of financiers, some of whom formed their own guilds and found that investment in trade proved increasingly lucrative.49 The changed economy is evident in the growth of cities and of an urban culture in which such distinctions as pura (walled settlement), durga (fortified town), nigama (market centre), nagara (town), and mahanagara (city) became important.


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