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Stagnation and Economic Decline in Hindu Society

In Hindu society since the early 900s, feuds over possession of land were common between families and between principalities. Vendettas developed between families. Wars arose. Potentates had risen to power through violence, and many of them wished to perpetuate an image of military prowess and to acquire more land – land being the major source of status. A disparaging remark by a rival was justification for starting a war, and wars were made into grand pageants.

Wars were also glorified in literature – as they had been in the story of Krishna in a chariot with Arjuna. Death on the battlefield was seen as the highest possible honor. And the dead warrior's wife was obliged to join her husband in death – a ritual sacrifice called suti. In suti, the spirit of the woman put to flames snatches her husband from the hands of Yamdoot (the messenger of death) and takes him to Swarglok (paradise).

Landowners with great power were accumulating more land at the expense of their more humble neighbors. More people were becoming hired workers on the land of the wealthy. Estate owners lived in splendor while others did the work. A few princes had thousands of servants and hangers-on. A few had harems. Their families wore extravagant clothes and jewels. Owners gave land to others to manage, while those who worked their lands were denied freedom and relegated to the Shudra caste – the caste of menials.

It wasn't the best system for maximizing agricultural development. Agriculture on the big estates remained inefficient, and a large part of the rest of agriculture in Hindu society was subsistence farming – farming without trade. There was no beef industry that was supplementing the diet of people as in Europe. In India the veneration of cattle was inimical to this kind of meat industry.

Enough surplus was produced by the great estates that some trade with foreigners flourished. Indians continued to export rice, other cereals, coconuts, spices, sugar, woods, dyes and precious stones. They imported perfumes, finished cloth including silk, wax, precious stones, gold, medicinal herbs, ceramics and metal wares, not much that benefitted common people. And much of this trade was handled by foreign merchants who were mainly Muslims.

Brahmins were much like the Confucians in their opposition to trade, the Brahmins making involvement in foreign trade, as well as farming and overseas travel, forbidden to their class. Generally, religious contemplation was esteemed while people with power had little interest in improving conditions for the merchant or in improving technology.

There was an improvement in the method of working cotton – the Carter's bow – an improvement over beating the cotton with switches. It was introduced by Muslims. The spinning wheel also appeared and increased cotton production.

By the 13th century, many trade guilds were disappearing, and many trade connections were coming to a close. Trade within India had diminished as wealth was hoarded rather than invested – hoarded either by wealthy individuals or by religious establishments. And, with diminished trade, roads deteriorated. In India's towns were merchants and there had been bustle and hard work, but this economic class was suffering. Big landowners, princes and potentates, would remain the most influential – a conservative influence as in Spain, Russia and eastern Europe. The landed wealthy in India would wield a conservative authoritarianism. India would remain as conservatively religious as Spain and eastern Europe, with taboos inhibiting modernization. Brahmin priests encouraged obscurantism among India's elite. Rodents and insects could not be killed and vast amounts of foodstuffs were lost. Rules about handling refuse and excreta contributed to disease. The caste system choked initiative. The great Gupta prosperity and society of a few centuries before was no more, and in the centuries to come rather than India sending investments and soldiers abroad, investments and soldiers would be arriving from abroad.

Sources

A History of India, 4th Edition, by Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund, 1998

A New History of India, 5th Edition, by Stanley A Wolpert, 1997

Shankara and Indian Philosophy, by Nalalia Isayeva, State University of New York Press, 1993

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