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Harshwardhan [606 AD – 647 AD]

Harshavardhana is said to be the last great Hindu ruler of ancient India. For next thousand years such big empire was not established by any Hindu ruler. King Harsha belonged to Pushyabhuti dynasty at Thanesar (Haryana). Most of the information about king we get from two main sources: 1) HARSHACHARITA by Banabhatta and 2) Accounts of Huan Tsang (Xuanzang). These both texts glorify Harsha very much and it is often said that ‘Harshwardhan was not as great as was made by Hieun Tsang (Xuanzang) and Banabhatta.’

1. Account of Hieun Tsang (Xuanzang)

He was a Chinese traveler, who visited India during 639 AD to 645 AD. His book Si-yu-chi (record of western countries) throws light on the greatness of Harsha’s empire as well as social, economic and political life of that period..

Xuanzang’s descriptionEvidence from other sources
Harsh ruled over 5 indies.North India itself was divided in 5 parts i.e. Bihar, Bengal, Punjab, Kannauj and Gujarat.
There was peace, stability, security and no theft and burglary.Hieun Tsang himself was looted twice during his travels.
King charges only 1/6 th of produce as land revenue.Other evidences show that at least 1/4 th of produce was normal rate of revenue.
He said that Harsha’s military consisted of 5 lack foot soldiers, 1 lack cavalry and 60,000 elephants.However Pulakesin II defeated Harshavardhan. This cannot happen with such large army.
Harsha’s daily schedule had 3 parts – one was to look after state affairs, and remaining two in religious affairs.This appears as over-glorification of Harsha’s generosity.

2. Other Information from Si-yu-chi

He describes city life of India, houses of various types constructed with wood, cow-dung and bricks.
He talks about world renowned Nalanda and Vallabhi university.
Caste system was rigid, untouchability was quiet prominent.
Practice of Sati was prevalent.
He talked about India as a rich and prosperous country, known for its high quality cotton, silk, pearls, spices, crops etc.

3. Banbhatta

He was a prose writer and poet in the court of king Harshvardhana. He wrote several books like HARSHACHARITA, KADAMBARI, PARVATI PARINAYA, CHANDISHATAKA etc.
HARSHACHARITA contains accounts of events in life of king Harsha.

Banbhatta’s descriptionOther accounts
‘Harsha’s empire extended upto the land of snowy mountains.’ It implies that Kashmir and Nepal valley would be under Harsha.But we come to know that Kashmir and Nepal were being ruled by independent rulers like Lalitaditya at that time.
He says that Sindh was also ruled by HarshaBut we come to know that Sindh was independent kingdom.
He talks about preparation of Harsha for fight against Shashank.But Banabhatta does not reveal the outcome of the fight.
 Harsha’s defeat at the hands of Pulakesin II has not been mentioned by Banabhatta

4. Achievements of Harshawardhan

King Harsha is known for unification of north India. His kingdom was the last Hindu kingdom in ancient area spanning such huge area. His spirit of imperialism is not only known for strength of his army but also for ethical imperialism. He did not massacre thousands of common innocent people.
He was a man of learning and he used to give donations in large number as evident from Prayag assembly, which he used to organize every four years, where he used to donate generously to Bramhins, scholars, poors, needy. He also gave huge donation to Nalanda university, which flourished during his times.
He was patron of art and culture. He himself was author of RATNAVALI, PRIYADARSHIKA, NAGANANDA.
He established diplomatic relations with Chinese rulres and king of Kamarupa (Assam region).

5. Critical examination of Harshavardhan

Although Xuanzang glorifies Harsha as a highly religious king, social evils like sati, child marriage, sufferings of widow continued even during his times. He did not took measures to curb them down. Untouchables and outcastes increased in larger numbers during his rule.
Though he subdued feudal elements, he did not eliminated them, which led to rise of feudalism to a large extent after his death. In fact, his practice of giving huge land grants to Bramhanas, further strengthened feudalism.
Trend of de-urbanization, ruralization, jajmani system (self sufficient economy), continued to grow in his times. He did not took efforts to reverse this trend. Cities like Koshambi, Ahichhatra were abandoned and shift was from secondary to primary activities.
Hence, though Harsha’s rule was great, he could not establish a sustainable system, which is evident from fall of his empire immediately after his death.

6. Feudalism (Samanta system)

Feudalism is derived from the word feudam, which is translated into ‘fief’, which refers to land tract, dominated by chiefs.
Feudalism originated in India with land grants given to Bramhanas, temples and later to state officials leading to the alienation of revenue rights, administrative rights and judicial rights.

Factors responsible for emergence of Samanta system.

  1. For the first time land grants are mentioned in Satavahana inscriptions of 1st century BC. Inscription mentions grant of village as a gift in Asvamedha sacrifice. Various land grants of the period included bramhadaya (land donated to Bramhanas), agrahara (settlement of priests), devadana (villages donated to temples).
  2. Land grants were also extended to officials for performing their duties.
  3. Samudragupta’s imperialism reflected in his suzerainty where he would create local chiefs called vassals to carry out the administration. These vassals would later become feudal lords.

With these land grants, it started as right to extract revenue. Then administrative and judicial rights. Later extended to property rights, force upon peasants to carry out cultivation and culminated in large standing army.

Impact of feudalism

Political fragmentation and decline of administrative efficiency and uniformity.
Decline of trade and commerce, decline of monetization, paucity of money..
Peasants were subjected to forced labour like vishthi.
Community rights to forests, pastures, ponds would be lost.
Socio-religious life was also adversaly affected with Bramhanas acquiring high position in society.

How Indian feudalism is different from European feudalism?

European feudalism was much more established, dominant and much more exploitative in nature than Indian feudalism.
British feudalism had following features.

  1. System of Manor – feudal lord in Europe used to live in castles, enjoying enormous economic legal power of maintaining law and order, dispensing justice etc.
    This tradition developed quiet late in Indian feudalism and that was also not much significant.
  2. Serfdom – A serf was present who had to work on land and could not change his profession or migrate to any other area or marry without permission of his lord.
  3. Military organization – The army of the King was highly decentralized with feudal lords given the responsibility to maintain particular number of troops and soldiers.

Indian feudalism lacked such strong establishment. Samanta system was a passing phase of history. It never became so much settled. It also lacked features like serfdom. Vishti was far less exploitative than serfdom. Indian laborer enjoyed much freedom compared to his European counter-part.

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