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Dynamics of the Ritual Gift System (Some Unexplored Dimensions)

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Item Code: NAM734
Author: Vijay Nath
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9788173049262
Pages: 258
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch x 5.5 inch
Weight 520 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

Dana or ritual gift-making has engaged the attention of Brahmanical lawgivers from the earliest times and, by the end of the first millennium AD, had even become the thematic focus of innumerable nibandhas or digests. It was, however, only in the latter half of the twentieth century when, in the context of feudal formations during the early medieval period, the practice of issuing land grants as a form of ritual gift-making came to evoke a lot of historical interest. The present volume is an eclectic collection of articles written over a period of almost twenty years, dealing with a religious institution that is unique to Indian culture.

The period of history surveyed in the volume covers over two millennia of cultural growth and development and broadly spans the Vedic, post-Vedic, and the Gupta/post-Gupta periods. This volume will be of paramount interest to scholars of Ancient and Medieval Indian History, Kingship and Religion in South Asia.

About the Author

Vijay Nath, retired as Associate Professor, Department of History, Jankidevi Memorial College, University of Delhi. She is the author of three books, Dana: Gift- system in Ancient India; Puranas and Acculturation: A Historico- Anthropological Perspective and The Puranic World: Environment, Gender, Ritual and Myth and has contributed papers dealing with ancient Indian social and ritual formations in leading journals and anthologies. She was the sectional president of the Indian History Congress held in Calcutta, 2001.


The present book is an eclectic collection of articles written over a period of almost twenty years and dealing with a religious institution that is unique to Indian culture, namely dana or ritual gift-making. The institution has engaged the attention of Brahmanical lawgivers from the earliest times and, by the end of the first millennium AD, had even become the thematic focus of innumerable nibandhas or digests. It was, however, only in the latter half of the twentieth century when, in the context of feudal formations during the early medieval period, the practice of issuing land grants as a form of ritual gift- making became the subject of extensive research, that dana came to evoke a lot of historical interest.

Moreover, in the wake of Darwin's famous theory of mutual aid,' furbished further by Kessler' and Petr Kropotkin;' gift-making in its other aspects of exchange and redistribution, especially in a preliterate social context, became the subject of anthropological field studies undertaken by some well-known scholars such as Emile Durkheirn," B. Malinowski,' Raymond Firth," Evans Pritchard," and has continued to figure prominently in the works of more recent sociologists such as Erich Fromm," Max Gluckman, and Erik Schwimmer. 10 However, it was Marcel Mauss's famous work, Essai sur le don, forme archaique de l'e change, II in which sociological dimensions of the practice were probed with special reference to some great civilizations of the past, including that of India, that brought dana within the ambit of other forms of gift-making. It inevitably aroused the interest of some noted historians such as J. Gonda'2 and Romila Thapar. though a major section devoted to the topic of dana as delineated in the Dharmasastras already figured in P.V. Kane's magnum opus, the History of Dharmasastra. The subject also constituted the main theme of K.V.R. Aiyangar's commentary on Laksmidhara's work, The Dana Kanda of Krtyakalpataru. Dana finds brief mention even in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics edited by James Hastings, though it is essentially in a limited context of the practice of charity in early societies.

Despite these early writings on dana, since no exclusive work on the subject had been attempted and considering its potential as a social institution that could have dialectical linkages not only with other social and religious formations but even with developments related to polity and economy, I made it the subject of my PhD research under the guidance of Prof. R.S. Sharma, the chief proponent of the Indian feudalism theory. My findings were published in 1987 under the title Dana: Gift-system in Ancient India. Being the first book on the subject, the work was well-received by scholars of ancient Indian history. In this book, in order to make an in-depth study of all available original sources which could throw light on the subject, I deliberately limited the field of my research to a smaller period of history beginning with the age of the Buddha to the end of the Kusana- Satavahana period, i.e. from c. 600 Be to c. AD 300.

I analysed various components of ritual dana such as different categories of donors, recipients, gift-items and the procedural mode of its performance, and put them in a historical perspective. I also undertook a semantic study of the changing connotations and hidden nuances of the two terms dana and daksina, besides extensively probing the symbiotic relationship between gift-objects and the growth of property-right, as well as the scope in a patriarchal society of making close kin, mainly wife and children, the object of gift. However, such discussions remained essentially confined to the limited time-frame adopted for this book. Nevertheless, it is significant that ever since its publication, no other book on dana has come out so far and it continues to be the chief reference book on the subject.

However, as the author of the book, I soon came to realize that due to its limited purview as far as the period of history surveyed was concerned, there was no scope for analysing the changing trends in the institution from one period of history to another. The institution, as it evolved during the early Vedic phase, is found to undergo a complete transformation by post-Vedic times. Similarly, the institution as reflected in the Puranas had developed a ritual format that was different from that propounded in the Dharmasastra texts. This was equally true of certain donor and recipient categories as well, for they are found to undergo major variations from one period of history to another. Thus, whereas the position of women as donors remained almost unchanged during the post-Vedic phase when, due to developments in the field of commercial enterprise and urbanization, a certain section of urban-based women drawn mainly from the mercantile background figured as a prominent donor category, the sources pertaining to the Vedic as well as the Gupta/ post-Gupta periods reflect a completely different scenario about women as donors.

Similarly, in the case of brahmanas as a dominant category of recipients, I find that the basic qualifications that entitled them to receive dana underwent significant modifications from one age to another, largely subject to the changing material milieu. In the case of gift-items, too, the impact of the changing material culture i<: directly perceptible in the variations found in the quantum and range of articles that were both recommended as well as actually bestowed as ritual offerings. However, in the case of gift-objects, along with the changes, a certain amount of continuity is equally noticeable.

Consequently, to correctly assess the importance of the institution of dana in changing historical contexts it became necessary to study these variations not only in a broader time-frame but al 0 from a dialectical perspective. The period of history surveyed in the present book covers over two millennia of cultural growth and development and broadly spans the Vedic, post-Vedic, and the Gupta/post-Gupta periods, though each of these phases of history needs to be further divided into smaller time segments. Thus, just as the two successive stages of cultural development evident during the Vedic period evince significant changes in the general tenor of the institution of dana, a similar phenomenon is perceptible during the post - Vedic phase when, with the help of NBPW archaeological data, it is possible to discern two distinct stages of development in material culture, pre-Mauryan/ Mauryan and Kusana /Satavahana. The subsequent period beginning with the age of the Guptas and covering the entire early medieval period reveals more than two successive stages of socio-economic development, along with corresponding changes in the institution of dana.

Each of these periods of history was characterized by sharp cultural changes. Thus, if the early Vedic cultural phase was predominantly pastoral, the later period showed signs of a more settled economy with significant developments in the field of agriculture and craft production. During the post-Vedic period, while the earlier half corresponding to the pre-Mauryan/Mauryan period represented a preliminary phase of developments in the field of trade, urbanization and monetary economy, the later half or the Kusana/Satavahana period was marked by a flourishing economy in which all these three spheres showed remarkable growth and advancement. For a brief period under the Kusanas, India, taking centre-stage even in the field of Central Asian polity is known to have radiated and received cultural influences to and from other region. By the time of the Guptas, however, a reverse trend becomes perceptible. Not only there was a certain amount of regression in trade and commerce but the cultural focus now shifted to agricultural production. The trend became even more accentuated by the early medieval period when, in the wake of commercial decline, there followed not only urban decay but the monetary system also languished, thus paving the way for a closed landed economy. The latter, in its turn, was responsible for giving rise to a feudal social order. What is significant is that throughout this long period of cultural variations the institution of dana never lost its relevance.

In keeping with the widening time-range, I had to not only marshal more extensive data but also contend with more variety of source material. Thus, in the case of the Vedic period, besides archaeological data in the form of POW remains, our sources mainly comprise the Vedas and Vedangas, primarily consisting of the four Sarnhitas and the large number of Brahmanical texts based on them in the form of the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanisads. However, the sources tend to become more prolific and varied in the case of the subsequent post-Vedic period, when Brahmanical sources in the form of the Dharmasutras and the early Smrtis are supplemented not only by a large compendium of Pali literature but also by a new genre of writings in the form of texts having a more secular base and orientation such as those dealing with linguistics, statecraft and other disciplines. Forthcoming for the first time in this period are, besides foreign accounts, coins as well as inscriptions recording royal proclamations and votive donations. But it is for the Gupta/post-Gupta phase that we come across a huge amount of Brahmanical and non-Brahrnanical literature, as well as archaeological data. The latter, especially in the form of architectural remains and inscriptions recording royal prasastis and land grants, have proved to be an indispensable source of information on dana. As far as Brahmanical texts including the vast compendium of Puranic literature are concerned, without which a reconstruction of the institution of dana is inconceivable, any effort to fully utilize them gets thwarted by difficulties faced in fixing their exact date of composition. Consequently, in view of the rather large period of history covered in the book, I have generally accepted the dates suggested by P.V. Kane for various Brahmanical texts.

Besides looking into variations in the different components of dana as manifested in different periods of history, there are numerous other dimensions of the institution that have also required probing, especially in the light of more recent researches conducted worldwide. For instance, there was a need to investigate the ritual symbolism of dana in order to understand the rationale for the continued popularity of the institution through almost three millennia of Indian history. For any social institution to retain its relevance and viability for over three thousand years speaks volumes for it and it has to be credited with an extraordinary potential to adapt to the varying needs of a continually changing society.

Similarly, it was equally necessary to look into its ideological dimensions for assessing the degree of impact it exercised on contemporary life. The use of an institution as an ideological mechanism by ideologues can be, to some extent, responsible for bringing about a shift in the belief-system and even prove conducive to cultural transition. The role played by the institution of dana not only in endorsing and popularizing the principle of non-violence or ahimsa, as opposed to sacrificial ideology during the post-Vedic period, but also in facilitating and promoting a feudal ethos during the early medieval period is undeniable. Both ritual symbolism as well as the ideological dimension of dana had a significant bearing on the contemporary polity and economy, and have been made the subject of two separate chapters in the present book.

Moreover, it was equally necessary to situate the institution in the wider framework of Brahmanical ritualism in order to assess its centrality and importance as a ritual construct. In the first chapter of the book, an attempt has been made to achieve this with large inputs derived from my other published articles dealing with varied aspects of Brahmanical ritualism. Some Brahmanical rituals that gained popularity mainly in the Gupta/post-Gupta period were temple- worship (puja), vratas and tirthas which are found to have a close affinity with the institution of dana; though the latter's centrality in the sacrificial as well as sacramental ritualism of Vedic and post- Vedic times was equally undeniable.

In the backdrop of recent urban studies and, more especially, in the light of the contentious debate 14 triggered by Mauss's statement that brahmanas who lived by soliciting and receiving gifts, that is solely by religious service, refused 'to have anything to do with a national economy dominated by towns, money and markets' and remained 'faithful to the economy and morality of the old Indo-Iranian shepherds' ,15 it has become imperative to analyse the dialectics of the institution with processes of urban development. My study reveals that the new commerce and urban-dominated social order of the Kusana/Satavahana times not only gave rise to a totally new form of gift-system but the latter itself proved to be a phenomenon integral to the urbanization process witnessed during post-Vedic centuries. The subject has been discussed at length in the last chapter of the book.

Another area that needed to be scrutinized was the impact exercised on the dynamics of ritual gift-system by the peasantry, which, from post-Vedic times, constituted an overwhelmingly large proportion of the Indian population, even though there is hardly any forthcoming evidence that sheds light on their role as donors. Nevertheless, since food in the form of agricultural produce had begun to figure as an important gift-item right from the later Vedic times, the role of peasantry vis-a-vis the institution of dana, even if it remained mostly indirect and passive, can hardly be disputed. Similarly, as widely acknowledged, the growing practice of making land grants as part of ritual gift offering, during the Gupta/post-Gupta period, exercised a crucial impact on the condition of the peasantry. It not only reduced a large segment within it virtually to the position of serfs but al 0 delegated them to the lowest order in the social scale, that of sudras. The dialectics between the peasantry and the ritual gift system, therefore, forms the subject of another important chapter in the book.

In the larger context of ritual gift-making in ancient India, I felt it was necessary to not only fix the exact connotation of the term kanyadana, which came to be popularly used for the marriage of a daughter, but also determine how far it came within the purview of ritual gift- making. In a separate chapter of the book, and in the light of available data, I have tried to arrive at certain conclusions with regard to both these issues.

I have also tried to investigate how far it would be appropriate to regard almsgiving, a practice that has a ubiquitous presence in all class-divided societies, in the early Indian context figured more as a distended form of dana. Almsgiving in early India like dana had represented a unilateral form of gift-making, which sustained not only the practice of beggary but had also been vital for the foundation of the heterodox monastic systems, their members, i.e. the bhikkhus being solely dependent for their food and other essential requirements on bhikkha or alms. By highlighting some of the common features that characterized the two modes of unilateral gift making I have tried to show how the gap between the two often got blurred and sometimes even became completely obliterated.

There was also the need to find the rationale for the introduction of some innovative forms of ritual gift-making such as mahadana and parvata or meru-dana which are not heard of before the time of "the Puranas but which not only gained immense popularity thence- forth but were soon to become also the thematic focus of innumerable digests composed from the end of first millennium AD, some more noted works being Laksmidhara's Diinakalpataru, Ballalasena's Danasdgara, Hemadri' s Dana-khanda, Candesvara's Danaratndkara, Visvabhatta's Danasdra, Govindananda's Danakriydkaumudi, Bhatta Nilakantha's Danamayukha. A significant fact that emerges in this context is the close conjunction between the time when land grants had already played a major role in the emergence of a feudal society and the period when an extensive literature in the form of nibandhas on dana began to be composed. As pointed out by K.V.R. Aiyangar" the fact that these texts were meant chiefly for the edification of the feudal elite is more than evident from the kind of thrust that was generally laid in them on mahadanas, which considering their ostentatious character and the inscriptional testimony that is forth- coming, could have been performed mainly by members of an affluent feudal aristocracy. This is recognized even by one of the early writers on dana Govindananda Kavikankanacarya who lived in the sixteenth century, and claims to have deliberately omitted the sixteen mahadanas, the ten acaladanas and the dhenudanas on the ground that these were within the capacity of only ruling princes and noblemen, and that they could turn for information about the omitted great gifts to treatises on dana. The fact that by the end of the mil- lennium the institution of dana gave rise to a whole new genre of literature clearly shows that its centrality to society and economy of the early medieval period was undisputed and cannot be overemphasized.

Since the publication of my earlier book on dana I have been consistently engaged in working on many of these unexplored dimensions of the institution and articles dealing with some of them have also been published. Because these were written at different points of time spanning almost twenty years it was inevitable that many factual details and even certain basic conceptual thrusts recur in more than one article. This inevitably accounts for some amount of overlapping of factual details in the present book, though some of it is also caused by the articles having a common thematic focus. Readers' indulgence is, therefore, sought in this regard.

Moreover, in view of the very long period of history that has been surveyed in the book and the abundance of source material available for the subject, I cannot claim to have scanned and utilized the entire corpus of the available data. Instead on the basis of direct evidence derived mainly from inscriptions and Brahmanical texts, I have tried to delineate certain broad trends that characterized the institution of dana during different periods of history leaving ample scope for a more in-depth study on the subject.


Acknowledgements 9
Introduction 11
1Situating Dana in Brahmanical Ritualism 21
2Ideological Dimensions of Dana 45
3Ritual Symbolism and Status-conferring Role of Dana 64
4Women Donors in Ancient India 73
5Brahmana Recipients of Dana: Changing Parameters 90
6Kanyadana: Element of Exchange and Gift in Marriage: Genesis and Dimensions 117
7Mahadana: Dynamics of Gift-Economy 132
8Almsgiving: How Far is it a Distension of Dana 163
9Peasantry and the Dynamics of the Ritual Gift System 182
10A New Form of Gift System as a Factor in Urbanization 203
Bibliography 229
Index 253

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