The Gupta Empire – Land Grants

Grants of land were made to religious and ritual specialist or to officers. This did not produce revenue for the state, but it allowed some shuffling of revenue demands at the local level and created small centers of prosperity in rural areas that, if imitated, could lead to widerimprovement. If the land granted to brahmans (whether as ritual specialists or as administrators) was wasteland or forest, the grantee took on the role of a pioneer in introducing agriculture. Brahmans became proficient in supervising agrarian activities, helped by manuals on agriculture, such as the Krishiparashra, which may date to this or the subsequent period. Some normative texts forbid agriculture to the brahmans except in dire need, but this did not prevent brahmanical expertise in agricultural activity.

Commercial enterprise was encouraged through donations to guilds, even if the interest was to go to a religious institution, and by placing commercial entrepreneurs in city councils and in positions with a potential for investment and profit. The range of taxes coming to the state from commerce was expanded, which in turn required an expansion in the hierarchy of officials. Although the granting of land was at first marginal, by about the eighth century CE it had expanded, gradually resulting in a political economy that was recognizably different from pre- Gupta times.

Kings who conquered neighbouring kingdoms sometimes converted the defeated kings into tributary or subordinate rulers, often referred to in modern writing as feudatories. Agreements were also negotiated with such rulers. The term samanta, originally meaning neighbour, gradually changed its meaning to a tributary ruler. This implied more defined relationships between the king and local rulers, relationships that became crucial in later times with a tussle between royal demands and the aspirations of the samantas. Where the latter were strong the king’s power weakened. But he needed the acquiescence of the samantas – the samanta-chakra or circle of samantas – to keep his pestige. Samantas were in the ambiguous position of being potential allies or enemies.

In addition to the tributary rulers, grants of land had created other categories of intermediaries. Grants to religious beneficiaries included some to temples, monasteries and brahmans. Such grants to temples empowered to sects that managed the temples. Villages could also be given as a grant to a temple for its maintenance. This added local administration to the role of the temple, in addition to being an area of sacred space. At a time when land grants were tokens of special favour the grant to the Brahman must have underlined his privileged position. The agrahara grant of rent-free land or a village that could be made to a collectivity of brahmans, the brahmadeya grant to brahmans, and grants to temples and monasteries, were exempt from tax. The brahmans were often those proficient in the Vedas, or with specialized knowledge, particularly of astrology. Gifts to brahmans were expected to ward off the evils of the present Kali Age, and recourse to astrology appears to have been more common.

Grants of land began to supersede monetary donations to religious institutions. Land was more permanent, was heritable and the capital less liable to be tempered with. Such grants were more conducive to landlordism among brahmans grantees, although the monasteries did not lag too far behind. Another significant feature of this period was that officers were occasionally rewarded by revenue from grants of land, which were an alternative to cash salaries for military or administrative service. This is mentioned in some land-grant inscriptions from this period onwards, and also in the account of Xuan Zang (Hiuen-Tsang). Such grants were fewer in number. Not all grants to brahmans were intended for religious purposes since there were many literate brahmans performing official functions. Vassalage, involving a warrior class with ties of obedience and protection, is not commonly met with.

Such grants distanced the owners from the control of the central authority, thus predisposing administration to be more decentralized. Those with substantial grants of land providing revenue could together accumulate sufficient power and resources to challenge the ruling dynasty. If in addition they could mobilize support from peer groups and others such as the forest chiefs, or coerce the peasants into fighting for them, they could overthrow the existing authority and establish themselves as kings, at least on the fringes of the kingdom.

Brahmans as religious beneficiaries were granted land, ostensibly in return for legitimizing and validating the dynasty, or averting a misfortune through the correct performance of rituals or the king earning merit. Lineage links with heroes of earlier times were sought to enhance status through a presumed descent. If the grant was substantial enough the grantee could become the progenitor of a dynasty through appropriation of power and resources. The grants were also part of a process of proselytizing where the grantee sought to propagate his religion. Many grants were made to brahmans proficient in the Vedas, but when they settled near forested areas, or in villages already observing their own beliefs and rituals, the very different observances of the brahmans may have created tensions requiring a negotiated adjustment on both sides. In this situation the Puranic sects were useful mediators between Vedic Brahmanism and the religions of the local people. Even if the Brahman took over the ritual of the priest, he would have needed to incorporate local mythology and iconography into the flexible and ever- expanding Puranic sects.

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