The Feudalism Debate

• A collection of essays was published in New Delhi in 1999 under the title ‘The Feudalism Debate’ after some aspects of the comparison between European and Indian feudalism were applied to other countries in the 80s and 90s.
• The Feudalism Debate refers to the difference of opinions between historians regarding the existence and nature of feudalism in the Early Medieval Period of Indian History.
• The main votaries of Indian Feudalism are historians D.D. Kosambi, R.S. Sharma, B.N.S. Yadav and D.N. Jha, although there were several differences amongst them also.

Indian Feudalism by R.S. Sharma An Introduction to the study of Indian History- D.D. Kosambi

• Against these views are those of Harbans Mukhia and D.C. Sircar among others.
• Col. James Todd first applied the vassal-lord institution to Rajasthan.
• Marxist historians themselves attacked Marx’s theory of ‘Asiatic mode of production’ which assumed changelessness in Indian mode and relations of production and the absence of class struggle.
• Kosambi in An Introduction to the Study of Indian History explained feudalism from above to be through the land grants which made the samantas more autonomous and feudalism from below to be the rise of village individual and groups to the status of ‘samantas’.
• Kosambi extended feudalism upto seventeenth century, treating in a way 1400 years as the same from one end to the other.
• R.S. Sharma in his Indian Feudalism only regarded feudalism from above i.e., state-driven and copied a Belgian historian Henri Pirenne’s explanation of feudalism in through invasion, decline in trade, ruralisation of European economy and peasant revolts.
• B.N.S. Yadav cited Huna invasion which gave a blow to the trade of the period and Sharma cited Kaivarta rebellion against feudal oppression.
• Sharma held that in scarcity of coinage, land grants to Brahmins and employees weakened the state authority.
• The state also gave intermediaries more rights over the cultivating peasants.
• The necessity of recording the land grants gave rise to the new caste of scribes called Kayasthas.
• But Maurice Daubb, a marxist economist refuted Pirenne’s correlation of decline in trade and rise of feudalism. In western Europe, revival of trade didn’t loosen the feudal structure, rather it was the flight of peasants from villages to cities due to the feudal oppression. On the other hand, in the Eastern Europe the trade revival brought ‘second serfdom’.
• Harbans Mukhia’s address in 40th session of Indian History Congress, titled ‘Was there Feudalism in Indian History?’ questioned the formulation of Feudalism and a universal phenomenon.


Harbans Mukhia

Harbans Mukhia

• Mukhia explained the differences between medieval Indian and medieval European agriculture to show how Indian relations of production can’t be viewed from the European lens.
• The first difference was on ecological conditions and the soil quality which demanded different intensities of labour. Indian lands yielded two crops a year.
• The second difference was regarding the technology used. In Europe it was very labour-insensive. The Indian peasant had the advantage of the humped bull. It took centuries of technological improvement to facilitate full use of the bull’s drawing power on medieval European fields.

It took centuries of technological improvement to facilitate full use of the bull’s drawing power on medieval European fields.

• The third difference was regarding the forced labour. The Indian form ‘Begar’ for the zamindar or the jagirdar was outside the process of production. So production labour was in the control of the peasant only. Mukhia termed this as ‘free peasantry’.
• One criticism of the feudal paradigm was made that how can the state preside over it’s own weakening by doling out packets of autonomy to the nobles.
• Sharma addressed some of the criticisms and on the other hand strengthened his thesis of Indian Feudalism.
• He held that it was not the state but the manner in which the state responded to the social unrest and politico-fiscal crises which was the prime mover in the entire gamut of socio-political change.
• He started finding & focussing on the cultural reflections of the feudal society. • He and B.N.S. Yadav cited the Kaliyuga and Varnasamkara which was condemned by the contemporary orthodoxy.
• The decline in trade made vaishyas move to agriculture which resulted in the mixing of the varnas and the subsequent coercive methods of the Kshatriyas to appropriate surplus and signs of dissent among the peasantry.
• He also regarded Bhakti to be buttressing the feudal mindset by promoting loyalty, veneration and submission to the higher ‘lord’.

A European feudal lordBhakti tradition- Meerabai

Is there a similarity between these two pictures?

• Doubts upon these evidences of a social crises have been cast upon by D.N. Jha & B.P. Sahu.
• D.N. Jha pointed to the flourishing trade in several regions of India even before the so called revival around 1000 AD.
• The monetary anaemia thesis that feudalists held about the paucity of coins in North India in Early Medieval Period is called into question by John Deyell.
• The use of cowries in India obtained from Maldives also point to some extent of foreign trade in the period.
• Although no definite answers could be concluded, this debate signifies the self renewing and self-questioning nature of the discipline of History.

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