Impact of Vedic Culture on Society

by Kaushik Acharya | 2020 | 120,081 words

This page relates ‘Concept of Dana in Land Grants during Early and Early Medieval Periods’ of the study on the Impact of Vedic Culture on Society as Reflected in Select Sanskrit Inscriptions found in Northern India (4th Century CE to 12th Century CE). These pages discuss the ancient Indian tradition of Dana (making gifts, donation). They further study the migration, rituals and religious activities of Brahmanas and reveal how kings of northern India granted lands for the purpose of austerities and Vedic education.

2. Concept of Dāna in Land Grants during Early and Early Medieval Periods

The concept of dāna was well demonstrated in the land grants. Besides containing genealogy of the donor, appraisal, and other incidental informationthey recordnecessary details directly connected with the act of donation. As seen from these epigraphical records, things that were usually given in the early medieval period, included mainly landed property though gift of other things like wells, gardens, temples and othersis also not rare. The most important item of gift, however, was land, which is evident from the numerous land grant charters in this period. And it certainly plays an important role in understanding the socio-economic history of the period.

Granting lands to an individual or institution seems to be highly commendable in early and early medieval periods in northern India. At that time, the receivers of land grants were mostly vedic brāhmaṇas. As the spiritual authority, they were always patronized by the kings and other members of the ruling family.

There are plenty of inscriptional evidences where the kings from Āryāvarta (Northern India) granted acres of landed properties to the brāhmaṇas of yajurvedīya śākhās viz. Vājasaneyī Mādhyandina, Vājasaneyī Kāṇva, Maitrāyaṇī and others to perform vedic sacrifices and to increase religious merit of their own or their parents. We may notice that the yajurvedīya brāhmaṇas were the most welcome in the society as they were the supreme priest for performing yajña. However, we are going to see some ṛgvedīya or sāmavedīya brāhmaṇas who were gifted lands to perform vedic sacrifices and to initiate vedic teachings as well.

We may experience the strong impact of vedic culture in society in early and early medieval periods through the land grant charters of northern India, where dāna or charity took different routes. We hardly find an inscription where knowledge, cows, gold, ornaments, anna (food grains), vastra (clothing), vāhana, and other things are recorded asitems of dāna. But apart from the vedic literature interestingly even some of the contemporary literature and Purāṇas (during 4th-12th century CE as discussed earlier) mentionall of them [godāna (donation of a cow), vastradāna (donation of clothes to the needy one), bhūdāna (donation of land), vidyādāna or jñānadāna (sharing knowledge and teaching skills), annadāna (sharing food with others ) and others] as objects of dānā, and elaborately explain the merits and demerits of them .

The copper plate charters discovered from different parts of India attest to predominance of brahmins as the recipient of the land grants. During the period from c. 400-1200 CE, the vedic (śrotriya) brāhmaṇas as well as other brāhmaṇas belonging to other social groups and pursuing different occupations figure as donees in Sanskrit inscriptions in northern India. They are also found as witnesses, executors, and sometimes as writers of charters.

Following the rules of Dharmaśāstras, in early and early medieval period various occasions have been chosen for issuing grants like uttarāyaṇa and dakṣinayaṇa saṃkrānti (the summer and winter solstices), sūryagrahaṇa and candragarahaṇa (solar and lunar eclipses) and pūrṇimā (full-moon day) . Some full-moon days were specially selected, such as the full-moon days of Kārttika and Jaiṣthya as shown from the grants issued from northern India. Even today the full-moon days are the time for festivals in many regions in India. The purpose of the land grantsincluded any auspicious work or rituals on any prosperous moment. However, the inscriptions always present religious merit as the ultimate aim of the grant. If we carefully read the land grant charters we may also find the reason to be the necessity of renewing the previous grant.

Baroda Grant issued by Karka Suvarṇavarṣa (c. 812-13 CE)[1] of Rāṣṭrakūṭa (of Gujarat) dynasty records a grant of a village to a vedic brāhmaṇa with the usual privileges like udraṅga, uparikara, etc., for the purpose to keep up the sacrificial rites of the bali, caru, vaiśvadeva, Agnihotra , and atithi. The grant was made previously to gods and brāhmaṇas. But unfortunately, they were exempted from this current grant. The grant got revoked and had to be reissued. The same thing happens in another grant issued by him.[2]

Similarly in various inscriptions, the previous grant has been reissued and the recipients of the previous grant have been exempted from this current grant.[3] Interestingly, it has also been said that they will enjoy this grant in a hereditary way.

Examples of encroaching upon previously donated land by the current rulers are not rare. There are also examples of giving back to the brāhmaṇas several villages acquired by the previous rulers. The three copper plate inscriptions from Gaoni (c. 930 CE)[4] issued by the King Govinda IV of Rāṣṭrakūṭa dynasty record grant of a village to a vedic brāhmaṇa besides giving away of several villages granted by previous rulers to the brāhmaṇas.

Many of the charters state how the king was protecting the grants to temples and agrahāras though they were granted by previous rulers and was generously making hundreds of land grants daily. In this case, Cambay Plates of Govinda IV (c. 930 CE)[5] can be an excellent example.

The inscriptions of northern India at that period under discussion generally register the grants of agrahāras or lands to learned (vedic) brāhmaṇas or to religious institutions. Interestingly the land donations made to that brāhmaṇas were exempted from individual taxes most of the time. And the permission was obtained from the concerned dynasties for apparent reasons, as the grant would bring certain fame and religious merits to the donor.

The land grants generally mention the detailed information regarding the identity of the donees including their pedigree, academic qualifications, native places, administrative responsibilities if any and the like. It was necessary for proving their worth as recipients of the gifts. Also when the land is being transferredto the donee it is transferred with all the privileges enjoyed by the king earlier. The grant was issued for eternity to be enjoyed hereditarily. This is followed by the usual caution to future rulers and others against any type of disturbance. Such caution found in every grant proves that it was a common practice to encroach upon donated properties by kings or other powerful persons close to the king whom Kauṭilya calls rājavallabhas. [6] Since some of the brāhmaṇas were brought from other provinces for erforming vedic sacrifices or to initiate vedic teachings, it seems that local residents also needed their proper identifications so that they could enjoy the grant and live happily ever after. And that is why the charters refer to the name and exact location and all-around specific boundaries of the gifted lands like now. It was also necessary for protecting the land against tresspassers.

The gifts generally consist of a plot of land or a field in the village or most of the time, we may find an entire village to a specific learned individual or many recipients or religious institution. The area of the plot of land was also specified in contemporary land measurements like kheṭaka, khanḍikās, kharas, padāvarttas, and nivartanas. These donations are often indicated concerning the territorial division, such as grāma, viṣaya, bhukti and others.[7]

These copper plate inscriptions record the gift of land to various institutions as agrahāra, brahmadeya, dharmadeya. The grant of the village as dharmadeya usually with a number of rights and privileges which will be discussed elsewhere.

A few instances of copper plate grants are cited below for getting a glimpse of the concept of land donation during the period under scanner.

As recorded in the Kailan copper plate of King Bhāvadeva of Devaparvata (second half of the eighth century) Mahāsāmanta Namadhāra himself requested the king to make an endowment of land free of taxes to a buddhist monastery at Vendāmati. D.C. Sircar thinks that some of these grants, though contain no reference to the making of payments, were based on transactions involving the sale of land. In support of this argument, he cites the Nālandā Copperplate of Devapāla[8] according to which King Devapāla granted villages as a tax-free holding to a monastery at the request of Balaputradeva king of Suvarṇabhūmi. Sircar argues that Balaputradeva purchased the five villages from Devapāla as otherwise the whole of the religious merit occurring from the donation would go only to Devapāla , not to Bālaputra. D.C. Sircar further points out that this was no doubt an unwanted position for the king of Suvarṇabhūmi, if he purchased the village, as he no doubt did, five-sixth of the merit would be his own and only one-sixth would go to Devapāla. However, this mere supposition from which he attempts to summarize the conclusion is in no way supported by the contents of the inscription.The said inscription does not mean that the donation was for the increase of religious merit of the king of Suvarṇabhūmi;instead, it states very clearly that the King Devapāla, donated the village in question for enhancement of the spiritual glory of his parents and himself. If Devapāla received any payment for making the tax-free holding theoretically, he would not be entitled to any merit accruing from the endowment. Thus, it is quite clear that it was not Balaputra’s intention to acquire merit by donating villages, but to ensure a permanent source of income for the maintenance of the building and provisions of the monastery he established. He had already attained religious merit by constructing a monastery. Therefore, there could be no question of a monetary transaction in the grant recorded in the Nālandā copper plates.

There is no positive testimony, however, to suppose that the donees of all the religious endowments had to make payments to the state treasury to obtain the king’s sanction to get the land tax-free. Members of the royal family and some royal officials, who enjoyed tax-free land holdings, would no doubt get their religious grant declared tax-free, without making payment to the state.

There were specific general procedures to be followed in the issuing of a land grant, and certain ceremonies to be observed before the donation was completed. It is interesting to note that before the operative portion recording the actual grant the donor or the ruler in all the charters addresses, orders and intimates all the persons concerned in the matter of the grant. They include royal officials, officers of different grades serving in different departments, neighbouring people, even common people belonging to different social orders.[9]

The address to the royal officials and the local villagers ensured that no injustice was suffered by the villagers as a consequence of the transaction, on the other hand, the text of the grant was the official announcement of the endowment and the villagers had to precisely be informed. Moreover, the royal officials were required to see that no injustice or disturbance would be caused to the donees in their enjoyment of the grant. Also, they had to ensure that the donation was enjoyed by the donees by the condition laid down in the document of the charter. Accordingly, the gift contained not only the royal announcement of the endowment but also an official order decreed upon the royal officials and the villagers concerned.

As the donation of villages together with relaxations and special privileges had been a well-established practice by the period under discussion, in most of the cases these privileges are explicitly mentioned, and some of the terms are repeated in an almost uniform manner in the inscriptions of all regions under consideration during early and early medieval period. In many cases, it is difficult to examine how far the land tenure and the rights of beneficiaries of different regions varied from each other and in different periods. Because in some cases, there are instances of change of ownership of land as a result of a change of dynasty or king.

Notably, not only the king but also the private individuals had the right to own the lands in well-developed places. These people were brought by the king himself but were not confiscated. From the above discussion, it is clear that the central themes in all land grants at the period under discussion are the specification of the gift of land, the name of the donor, the occasion and the purpose of the donation, and the boundaries of the donated land. The gift generally consists of a village in earlier times, and afterward plot of land or a step well with a small piece of land or agricultural fields gifted usually. The charters refer to the name and location of the granted land which is often indicated concerning the territorial divisions such as grāma, viṣaya, bhukti, and others.

The varied characters of land are minutely mentioned in the epigraphic records. In the village landscape, two major types of land were sthala-bhūmi (high or elevated land) and nimna-bhūmi (lowland). It means that sthala-bhūmi had exclusive use for habitation. Nimna-bhūmi, in the majority of cases, was used to mean wetland. In this sense low-land also comprised marshy land, however, low-land for the cultivation of crops was not rare. other types of land were ūṣara (salty land, generally barren), nimāna- bhūmi (table land), garta (either salt deposition spot after digging or depressed land) and tala (flat land). Village land area had two separate zones, inside and outside land as evidenced from the boundary descriptions of the donated lands. The three major land divisions were vāstu (for a living), kṣetra (cultivable), and khila (fallow). Vāstu-bhūmi is described as having fixed four boundaries. Sometimes arable lands were named after the principal crops.[10]

Footnotes and references:


USVAE, vol. VI, pp. 110-121.


Brahmanapalli grant of Karka Suvarṇavarsha (c. 824 CE) (ibid., pp. 157-161).


The inscription titled as “Navalākhī Plates of Śīlāditya” (USVAE, vol. IV, pp.159-166, 605 CE) issued by The king Śīlāditya of Maitrakas of Valabhī Dynasty records the village Bhōṇḍānaka included in Vaṭanagara-sthalī, to forty four Brāhmaṇas belonging to different gōtras and charaṇas, engaged in austerities and studies. Whatever land in the village had been granted previously to gods (temples) and Brāhmaṇas, was exempted in this current grant. Kāvī Plates issued by Gōvindarāja (c. 827 CE) (ibid., vol. VI, pp. 162-168) of the same dynasty records a grant of a village to a vedic Brāhmaṇa that carried with its usual privileges of udraṅga, uparikara, etc. The granted village was not to be entered by the Chāṭas and Bhaṭas and not to be meddled with by royal officers. It is interesting to note that the lands gifted previously to the gods and brāhmaṇas were excluded from the current grant.


USVAE, vol. VII, pp. 152-156.


Ibid., pp. 156-166.


Arthaśāstra, 2.1. Janapadaniveśa.


Kheda (Kaira) Plates of Dhruvasēna IV (USVAE, vol. IV, part I, pp. 587-593).


EI, vol. XVII, pp. 321-322.


Ibid., vol. IV, pp. 245-250.


Debarchana Sarkar (ed.), The First Horizons, pp. 42-44.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: