Guilds (Shreni) and their role in business promotion in Ancient India13th February 2020
Sreni, in the context of Ancient India, was an association of traders, merchants, and artisans. Generally, a separate shreni existed for a particular group of persons engaged in the same vocation or activity. Shrenis have sometimes been compared with the guilds. However, persons engaged in life destroying activities like hunting and fishing did not form any shreni.
Ancient Indian guilds are a unique and multi-faceted form of organization, which combined the functions of a democratic government, a trade union, a court of justice and a technological institution. The trained workers of the guilds provided a congenial atmosphere for work. They procured raw materials for manufacturing, controlled quality of manufactured goods and their price, and located markets for their sale. Though seen through the Eurocentric blinkers they have been misunderstood. It was believed that the Indian Guild system also followed the European feudal or the manorial system of the high Middle Ages, due mainly to sudden increase in trade. These European guilds identified as Merchant Guilds and Craft Guilds lasted in some places until the nineteenth and the twentieth century, though probably their golden age was in the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries. The Craft Guilds being the direct producers were more important than the Merchant Guilds. But the Indian guilds were far more important and complex institutions than the European examples.
Guilds (Shreni) role in business promotion in Ancient India
Besides serving the purpose of keeping the members of a trade together like a close community, the Guilds undertook many useful roles such as administrative, economic, charitable and banking functions. Thaplyal reports that the powerful Guilds performed judicial functions as well. The guilds had a good deal of administrative control over their members. Looking after the interests of their members making things convenient for them was their prime concern. The trained workers of the guilds provided a congenial atmosphere for work. They procured raw materials for manufacturing, controlled quality of manufactured goods and their price, and located markets for their sale. Although the Arthasastra does not contain any reference to guilds loaning money to the general public, yet there are references suggesting that the king’s spies borrowed from guilds on the pretext of procuring various types of merchandize. This shows that guilds loaned money to artisans and merchants as well. Guilds established their efficiency and integrity, and epigraphic evidence shows that not only the general public, even the royalty deposited money with them. However, the guilds had limited scope in banking in comparison to modern banks. Thaplyal refers to a few epigraphs here. A Mathura Inscription (2nd century AD) refers to the two permanent endowments of 550 silver coins each with two guilds to feed Brahmins and the poor from out of the interest money. Of the two Nasik Inscriptions (2nd century AD) one records the endowment of 2000 karshapanas at the rate of one percent (per month) with a weavers’ guild for providing cloth to bhikshus and 1000 karshapanas at the rate of 0.75 percent (per month) with another weavers’ guild for serving light meals to them. Apart from these more epigraphs and inscriptions are mentioned as evidence in this regard. In addition to this the guilds engaged in works of Charity as well. Guilds worked to alleviate distress and undertook works of piety and charity as a matter of duty. They were expected to use part of their profits for preservation and maintenance of assembly halls, watersheds, shrines, tanks and gardens, as also for helping widows, the poor and destitute.
The guilds beginning from 6th B.C., gradually gained importance in economy. They became crucial factor in organisation of production. The vast majority of artisans joined guild, since it was difficult for them to compete as individual against the guilds. With increasing demand for particular commodities and the consequent necessity to raise their output some guilds began to employ hired labour and slaves.
Leading guilds were those of potters, metal workers, carpenter etc. Their size can be gauged from the fact that one wealthy potter named Sadalaputta had owned five hundred potters shop. In addition he organised his own distribution and owned large number of boats which took pottery from workshops to various parts on Ganges. With increase in trade and commerce the major guilds grew even larger.
Guild fixed rules of work and quality of finished product and its price to safeguard both the artisan and customer. The guilds also controlled ‘the prices of manufactured articles and these either depended on quality of work or were calculated according to fixed scale.
Many guilds operated at local as well as on larger country level. Certain guilds were also involved in foreign trade. ‘Ayyavdle’ a guild from South India operated at longer long distance trade. ‘Manigramam’, another guild composed of multiple nationalities under took foreign trade.
The ‘Royal connection’ of the guild was also a significant factor which influenced the role played by guild in economy. Royalty had a financial interest in guild. Investment in commercial enterprise brought larger returns. Royalty thus had interest in ensuring well being of guild.
Another fact which emerges from inscription is that guild could act as banker, financer and trustee as well. Generally these functions were carried out by different category of merchants known as Sreshthin in North India and Chettyars in South India.