Prana, desha, anna: the modes of spiritual agriculture-II

Generations of spiritual farmers of Bharat, who have safeguarded the ‘parampara’ of dharmic cultivation, have shown us the worship that ties together the cultural, religious and biological richness of our civilisation.

Taking the yajnas and the injunctions about “annadana” as pointers to the size of a society that placed demands upon agricultural production, and of the size and vibrancy of the cultivators to meet that demand, we find that the practice of spiritual agriculture in Vedic, ancient, earlier and later medieval periods, and during the periods of foreign occupation (Muslim, Mughal and British, such as it was able to continue) required a supporting web of knowledge types. These included knowledge of the organisation and administration of the ‘gramas’ and their groups, of the varieties of crops and their properties (for nutrition under several circumstances, for ritual purposes, for medicinal purposes, etc.), of the soils and the cycles of water, of the calendrical and astrological observances and influencers of the seed and its growth.

The study of epigraphs and inscriptions of the different eras, which the Indologists of the modern era (from the mid-nineteenth century) have served us through their laborious researches, have given us a picture that adds to the profundity and breadth of information contained very much earlier in the ‘shruti’ and ‘smriti’. These do in the first place highlight in many ways the size of the populations of the earlier eras and the vitality of the agricultural practices that sustained such large populations. In our times, our view of population and its growth is ordinarily linked to the decadal censuses that began to be undertaken from 1901. The overall trend of these censuses taken together is to show rapid growth in a century, but the trend cannot, in the face of the evidence gathered even by the time of the end of the nineteenth century, be similarly extended backwards.

The records of inscriptions, often copper plates, are from different eras and from a number of locations in Vedic, ancient and medieval Bharatvarsha, include the assigning, by grants, villages, for purposes such as the maintenance of temples and places of religious learning, for senior or high officials of a raja, the maintenance of the families of those who had died on the battlefield. These provide a rich source for understanding the administrative structures to which the ‘gramas’ belonged, and their relationships with the administrators. Under the Chandellas, villages were grouped into ‘vishayas’ or ‘pathakas’, while the heirs of the Pratiharas (of the middle Ganga region) also mention ‘vishayas’ and ‘pattanas’ for towns (as is brought out in ‘The Struggle for Empire’, volume five of ‘The History and Culture of the Indian People’). In dakshin Bharata, under the Chalukyas, there were regions (corresponding to southern Maharashtra) in which the number of ‘gramas’ were grouped into 500, 1,000 and 2,000 under officers whose title was ‘mahamandaleshwara’. Farther south, the number of ‘gramas’ in large groupings rises to 12,000 and more (there are two recorded instances of a Chalukya queen having administered such a large group, and a Chalukya princess having done so).

With ‘vishayas’ and ‘mahamandalas’ containing within their administrative boundaries, several thousand ‘gramas’, and the kingdoms and empires of Bharatavarsha encompassing an area from Kabul to the river Airavati (Irrawaddy) in present-day Burma, the number and density of provincial divisions and the ‘gramas’ and ‘pattanas’ they sustained can only, pending painstaking research, be surmised. The fertility of the soil, which was already legendary in the wider world of the ancients (as evinced by exports to the regions of Babylonia and Rome), and the application of the interlinked modes of spiritual agriculture are the factors that made this astonishing scale of sustenance possible.

At its base lay the ‘grama’. Around the ‘grama’ lay its ‘khettas’ or pastures, and its woodland or uncleared jungle. Agricultural land is considered among the ten kinds of external possessions (other being buildings, gold, seeds of grain, collected wood (for fuel), grass, friends and relatives, means of conveyance, furniture and utensils). The ‘khetta’ was divided into ‘setu’ and ‘ketu’, the former being irrigated by water-wheels (also called Persian wheels, or ‘arahatta’) and the latter by rainfall. Agriculture was required ploughing. There was a ploughing deity (‘Sita-janna’ is one such given name) in whose honour a festival was held. “In a prosperous country, the land was ploughed with hundreds of thousands of ploughshares; and sugarcane, barley and rice were cultivated by ‘karisaya’ (farmers),” as explained in ‘Life in Ancient India as Depicted in the Jain Canons’. “There is mention of the limiting of the cultivable land for each plough could plough one hundred ‘nivartana’ of land (as stated by Baudhayana), which is described as an area sufficient to support one man by its produce.”

Indian farmers in their wisdom have followed certain precepts throughout history. For example, on sowing of seeds, a handful bathed in water and a piece of gold was sown first with the following mantra (as transmitted by the Arthashastra):

“Prajápatye Kasyapáya déváya namah.

Sadá Sítá medhyatám déví bíjéshu dhanéshu cha. Chandaváta hé.”

(“Salutation to God Prajápati Kasyapa. Agriculture may always flourish and the Goddess (may reside) in seeds and wealth. Chandaváta hé.”)

They likewise took guidance from Rishi Parashara (about 400 BCE), who wrote a general text on field crop agriculture and whose contents are so arranged that they may with scarcely any alteration be followed today as a book on introductory agriculture:

“Even the rich who possess a lot of gold, silver, jewels, and garments have to solicit farmers as earnestly as a devotee would pray to God.”

“An agriculturist, who looks after the welfare of his cattle, visits his farms daily, has the knowledge of the seasons, is careful about the seeds, and is industrious, is rewarded with the harvests of all kinds and never perishes.”

“Even a fourfold yield of crops procured at the cost of the health of the bullocks perishes soon by the sighs of their exhaustion.”

As the predominant grain harvest was rice of different varieties, the methods for its storage was a science unto itself. The paddy was sown during the rains and when ripe was harvested with newly sharpened sickles, threshed, winnowed and then taken to the granary, where it was stored in new earthenware jars, says the Vyavahara Bhasya. Elsewhere, piles of rings (‘valaya’) made from interwoven straw and leaves also served as receptacles for the grain. The floor beneath these receptacles was coated with cow dung and dried. Such heaps of grain were arranged close to the wall, besmeared with ashes, sealed with cow dung and screened with straw and bamboo. In the monsoon, the grain was stored in a variety of ways: in earthen containers, in receptacles of woven straw and bamboo, in granaries that stood on pillars, in upper storeys of houses, always well sealed with fresh clean mud and cow dung, often sealed with earthen seals. ‘Kumbhi’, ‘karabi’, pallaga’, ‘muttoli’, ‘mukha’, ‘idura’ and ‘alindaa’ are among the more common forms of storage. “Those, who stored crores and crores of ‘kumbhas’ of these grains in their granary were called ‘naiyatikas’,” the Vyavahara Bhasya has tantalisingly mentioned, indicating the great yields and the equally great responsibilities of those, the ‘naiyatikas’, in whose care the stored grains reposed.

Such a person represented the harmonious combination of a practitioner, administrator, and a religious institution (in the form of a temple or a temple complex with an associated seat of learning, a ‘matha’) that characterised agrarian-centred life in Bharat. Crop production, ownership, land tenures, assessment and revenue were the subjects that brought together the three parties locally and the fourth, the administration of the desa or the kingdom, distantly. Two kinds of land tenure, ‘agrahara’ and ‘devadaya’, were followed in the lands being utilised and belonging to one of the better known of such temple complexes in dakshina Bharata, that of the Somanathapura, on the banks of the Kaveri, in Mysore district. Teachers attached to the temple were given land grants in lieu of salaries, thereby illustrating the continuum of education, sustenance from the produce of the land, the crop cultivation knowledge ‘parampara’ of the region, and the support of the ‘parampara’ scripturally with the participation of the teachers.

Under the Hoysala (and subsequently the Vijayanagara), temple lands were managed by the ‘sthanikas’ or managers and the tenants of such lands were named differently from tenants of other cultivated land. Whereas the Somanathapura of Mysore was relatively large, well known and attracted large numbers of worshippers, its regular daily and festival consumption of agricultural and non-agricultural produce is common to all such temples and temple complexes. The ‘mahajans’, ‘sthanikas’ and ‘nambis’ of the Somanathapura temple purchased locally: rice, paddy, wheat, toor dal, green gram, black gram, soapnut powder, turmeric, jaggery, pepper, cardamom, sesame, arecanut, oil, sandalwood, ghee and curd. Where such temples and temple complexes thrived, they motivated agricultural expansion, mobilised and redistributed royal resources, linked ‘mandis’, gave employment to craftspeople and a great diversity of non-agricultural professions, all on the basis of the inseparable ties between the cultivator and the temple.

The complaint that though the Hindu rulers spent very little on themselves, they suffered from “two great vices”, which are the giving away of most of what they had to the Brahmins and to the temples, was made by an early governor-general of the British occupation, and by several of his predecessors and successors, as recorded by Dharampal. He has remarked that it is possible that the terms ‘Brahmin’ and ‘temple’ were used in a much wider sense and included all who were given to scholarship and support of one kind and another, and to institutions which catered not only to religious needs, but which also served purposes of scholarship, culture, entertainment and comfort. “It does imply that every person in this society enjoyed a certain dignity and that his social and economic needs were well provided for,” Dharampal has written. “Food and shelter seem to have been a natural right, given India’s cultural norms, and made easier by [the] fertility [of the soil].”

Hence, it is the village communities, by which term is meant the ‘grama’ with its cultivators, its professions and vocations agriculturally related and not, the associated temple (or where extant a temple complex with possibly a ‘matha’), with its intricate and mutually supportive webs of knowledge and scriptural practices, which altogether was later described as the agrarian institutions of Bharat. In his ‘The twelve ‘ayagars’ of village community in medieval Karnataka’, K S Shivanna has explained how the twelve ‘ayagars’ contributed to the growth and the self-sufficiency of the village. “The village hardly received anything in return from the towns. The village produced all its own needs from within. The affairs connected with agricultural production were conducted by the cooperation of a body of these twelve village functionaries. Each one of them rendered service to the economic well-being of the village. The office of these ‘ayagars’ was hereditary, hence this hereditary character infused in each ‘ayagar’ a devotion and love towards his own village. The British in the early 19th century were struck by the vitality and usefulness of this system.” Shivanna has quoted Mark Wilks, who spared no admiration for the timeless resilience of the system, he had beheld, one which no conquests, usurpations, or revolutions have been able to influence, whose whole frame of interior management remain unalterably the same, with “every state in India is a congeries of these little republics”.

Such self-sufficiency and insulation as ‘little republics’ can in no way be interpreted to mean that the ‘gramas’ stultified in any respect. On the contrary, particularly for cultivation (and animal husbandry) techniques, aspects concerning the employ of water and soil, and innovations in the use of the many materials of natural origin (furniture, vehicles, basketry and crafts), the network of markets served as mediums of exchange. The renown of regional and local varieties of cereals owed much to the exchange of method and modification between the ‘gramas’ that had been conveyed through such media. For example, in aromatic rice, following local varieties had attained renown: the ‘panarsa’ of parts of modern Himachal Pradesh, ‘laungchoor’ of Mirzapur and Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh, ‘ambemohor’ of Pune district in Maharashtra, ‘badsabhog’ of Paschimi Champaran in Bihar, ‘borjoha’ and ‘krishnajoha’ of Assam, ‘chinoor’ of Bhandara and Gondia districts in Maharashtra, ‘katanbhog’ of Coochbehar in West Bengal, and ‘vishnuparag’ of Barabaki and Bahraich districts of Uttar Pradesh. Aromatic rice varieties such as these, prized for centuries, require a depth of knowledge and application of practice that must nonetheless be added to with every season, to judge the ‘gunas’ of their favoured soils, supervise the passage of ‘jala’ into and from their fields, gauge the temperatures, plan their sowing by the ‘nakshatras’, time the festivals and then proceed to the labour.

In this, our agriculturists met and even excelled the expectations of the vaidyas, who had long ago enumerated the foods, their qualities and their uses based on the principle that there is no medicine comparable to food and it is possible to free a person of ailments solely through diet. One such compilation is the treatise, the Bhojanakutuhalam of Sri Raghunathasuri, which in 44 sections deals encyclopaedically with foods. In this, rice is classified as growing in burnt soil, wet lands, uncultivated soil, by cultivation, from fresh paddy, grown after harvesting. As major groups, they all have combinations of properties and tastes, and affect the three ‘doshas’ (‘vata’, ‘pitta’ and ‘kapha’) differently. The ‘kutuhalam’ dwells on certain rice species that are valuable from the perspective of ayurveda. Amongst these are the ‘rajanna’ of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh; ‘krishnasali’, which is famed for growing on the banks of the river Godavari; ‘raktasali’, which is highly valued for its effect on all three ‘dosas’; ‘mundasali’, which treats poisoning and wounds; ‘sthulasali’ or ‘mahasali’, which is sweet and wholesome for children and youth; ‘suksmasali’, ‘gandhasali’, ‘tiriya’, ‘sastivasaraja’ and ‘gaurasali’.

These few examples is sufficient to illustrate the presence of wide range of crop varieties and their associated, abundantly spiritual webs of knowledge, throughout Indian history. This article and its earlier companion article provide a very brief outline of the spiritual basis of agriculture in Bharat, the characteristics of the ‘gramas’ in which the practitioners of such agriculture were to be found in earlier eras, and the manner in which they maintained both their own autonomy and the autonomies of the religious institutions – the temples and associated ‘mathas’ – with respect to the administration of the region and of the raja. The practice and the application of generationally transmitted knowledge, strengthened by the dharmic principles retold in each age, and the expectant resting of an exacting ayurvedic tradition (itself as ancient as the texts in which the nature of food is revealed to us) upon the methods of the cultivators, serves to illumine the integral whole that is ‘prana’, desh and ‘anna’.

Subhash Palekar, who is Bharat’s foremost ‘karyakarta’ of spiritual agriculture, has often, and in writing, rued the slow, but inexorable dismantling of the little republics so admired by Dharampal, Wilks and Shivanna. He has said that when farmers began purchasing their seeds from the towns, when fertilisers (instead of the ‘bijamrita’, ‘ghanjivamrita’ and ‘jivamrita’ that he makes) is bought from the town to be applied to the fields of the ‘grama’, when the flow of goods that was earlier from ‘grama’ to town has been reversed, that is when the natural order was upturned, and that is why spirituality in agriculture must be restored. Over the last three or four decades, ideas from the west, which are termed ‘agro-ecology’ or ‘organic farming’ or ‘bio-dynamic agriculture’ or ‘holistic farming’ have found currency in the Bharat, whose spiritual agricultural practices are superior to these concepts, in the way that a summit of the Vindhyas is superior to the just-assembled mound of the mechanical earthmover. Palekar and his peers (the late Bhaskar Save and late G Nammalwar among them), the generations of spiritual farmers of Bharat, who have safeguarded the ‘parampara’ of dharmic cultivation, have shown us the worship that ties together the cultural, religious and biological richness of our civilisation. Behind them stands Balarama, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, and on his shoulder is the plough.


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  6. Historical Sketches of the South of India, volume 1, Mark Wilks, 1810
  7. Bhojanakutuhalam, Sri Raghunathasuri, edited in English by Scholars for Theoretical Foundations of the Institute of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, Bangalore 2012
  8. The Techniques of Spiritual Farming, Subash Palekar, Zero Budget Natural Farming Research Extension and Development Movement, Amravati, Maharashtra, 2010
  9. Kashyapiyakrishisukti: (A Treatise on Agriculture by Kashyapa), Agri History Bulletin No .4, S M Ayachit, Asian Agri-History Foundation, 2002
  10. Parashara (Agriculture by Parashara). Agri-History Bulletin No. 2. Nalini Sadhale, Asian Agri–History Foundation, 1999
  11. Vyavahara Bhasya Pithika, by Willem Bollee (ed.), Hindi Granth Karyalaya, 2006
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The author is a UNESCO expert on intangible cultural heritage (ICH) in the Asia-Pacific and has advised government officials, researchers, traditional knowledge bearers and practitioners on methods to identify, document and safeguard traditional knowledge systems and ICH. Goswami is adviser to the Centre for Environment Education Himalaya, a centre of excellence supported by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, on its programmes in the Indian Himalayan region. Earlier, he worked with the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, as a social sector consultant for the National Agriculture Innovation Project on the revitalisation of the agricultural extension system using traditional knowledge and participatory methods