Sreni (Guilds): a Unique Social Innovation of Ancient India

By Manikant Shah & D.P. Agrawal

Ancient Indian guilds are a unique and multi-faceted form of organisation,
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.

Ancient Indian guilds have been a subject of some debate, both about their
real character and antiquity.

Historical Review

Romila Thapar (2000:73 ) informs us that “The ancient sources frequently
refer to the system of guilds which began in the early Buddhist period and continued
through the Mauryan period. ….Topography aided their development, in as
much as particular areas of a city were generally inhabited by all tradesmen
of a certain craft. Tradesmen’s villages were also known, where one particular
craft was centred, largely due to the easy availability of raw material. The
three chief requisites necessary for the rise of a guild system were in existence.
Firstly, the localization of occupation was possible, secondly the hereditary
character of professions was recognized, and lastly the idea of a guild leader
or jetthaka was a widely accepted one. The extension of trade in the
Mauryan period must have helped considerably in developing and stabilizing the
guilds, which at first were an intermediate step between a tribe and a caste.
In later years they were dominated by strict rules, which resulted in some of
them gradually becoming castes. Another early incentive to forming guilds must
have been competition. Economically it was better to work in a body than to
work individually, as a corporation would provide added social status, and when
necessary, assistance could be sought from other members. By gradual stages
guilds developed into the most important industrial bodies in their areas.

“Having arrived at a point when the guilds controlled almost the entire
manufactured output, they found that they had to meet greater demands than they
could cater for by their own labour and that of their families; consequently
they had to employ hired labour. This consisted of two categories, the karmakaras
and the bhrtakas who were regarded as free labourers working for a regular
wage, and the dasas who were slaves. Asoka refers to both categories in his
edicts when he speaks of the bhatakas and the dasas. Thus by the
Mauryan period the guilds had developed into fairly large-scale organizations,
recognized at least in the northern half of the sub-continent if not throughout
the country. It would seem that they were registered by local officials and
had a recognized status, as there was a prohibition against any guilds other
than the local co-operative ones entering the villages. This suggests that a
guild could not move from one area to another without official permission.”

Thapar explains that the distribution of work was not only organized in terms
of the professions living in the town but also in terms of the physical occupation
by different professions of different parts of the town. Each sreni had
its own professional code, working arrangements, duties and obligations and
even religious observances. Matters relating to wider areas of dispute were
sometimes settled by srenis among themselves. Social mobility among such
groups, where an entire group would seek to change its ritual status on the
basis of an improvement of actual status, would be more frequent, since the
economic opportunities for improving actual status would be more easily available,
particularly in periods of expanding trade. It is not coincidental that the
greatest activity of heterodox sects and of religious movements associated with
social protest was in periods of expanding trade (Thapar 1996: 133).

U.N. Ghosal informs us that Narada prohibits mutual combination and unlawful
wearing of arms as well as mutual conflicts among the groups. Brihaspati lays
down the extreme penalty of banishment for one who injures the common interest
or insults those who are learned in the Vedas. According to Katyayana, one committing
a heinous crime, or causing a split, or destroying the property of the groups,
is to be proclaimed before the King and ‘destroyed’. On the other hand, all
members, we are told by Brihaspati, have an equal share in whatever is acquired
by the committee of advisers or is saved by them, whatever they acquire through
the King’s favour as well as whatever debts are incurred by them for the purpose
of the group…The evidence of the late Smriti law of guilds is corroborated
in part by a certain type of clay-seals, which, have been recovered from the
excavations of Gupta sites at Basarh (ancient Vaisali) and Bhita (near Allahabad).
These seals bear the legend nigama in Gupta characters (Bhita) and more
particularly the legends sreni-kulikanigama and sreni-sarthavaha-kulika-nigama
(Basarh). These names are often joined with those of private individuals. We
have here a probable reference to the conventions or compacts made by local
industrial and trading groups with private individuals or individual members.
Such documents would be called sthitipatras or samvitpatras in
the technical sense of the late Smritis (Ghosal 1997: 603-607).

Recently Kiran Kumar Thaplyal (2001) has come out with a very critical and
comprehensive study of guilds (srenis) in ancient India.

Thaplyal shows that both Merchant Guilds as well the Craft Guilds were very
much present and played a vital role in the socio-economic structure of ancient
India. His database is literary evidence as found in the scriptures, texts and
also archaeological findings. He discusses the institution of the Guilds in
four time brackets: 1) The Vedic period, 2) Buddhist/Jain period, 3) Mauryan
period and 4) and the Post-Mauryan period. Thaplyal sketches a brief historical
review and discusses various aspects of the laws, apprenticeship, structure,
offices, accounts and the functions of these guilds. He also shows the relationship
of the guild to the state. Reference is made to the cobblers’ guild, the oil
millers’ guild, potters guild, weavers’ guild, and hydraulic engineers’ guild.

Thaplyal writes that Buddhism and Jainism, which emerged in the 6th century
BC, were more egalitarian than Brahmanism that preceded them and provided a
better environment for the growth of guilds. Material wealth and animals were
sacrificed in the Brahmanical yajnas. The Buddhists and Jains did not
perform such yajnas. Thus, material wealth and animals were saved and
made available for trade and commerce. Since the Buddhists and Jains disregarded
the social taboos of purity/pollution in mixing and taking food with people
of lower varnas, they felt less constrained in conducting long distance
trade. The Gautama Dharmasutra (c. 5th century BC) states that “cultivators,
traders, herdsmen, moneylenders, and artisans have authority to lay down rules
for their respective classes and the king was to consult their representatives
while dealing with matters relating to them.” The Jataka tales refer
to eighteen guilds, to their heads, to localization of industry and to the hereditary
nature of professions. The Jataka stories frequently refer to a son following
the craft of his father. Often, kula and putta occur as suffixes
to craft-names, the former indicating that the whole family adopted a particular
craft and the latter that the son followed the craft of his father. This ensured
regular trained manpower and created more specialization. Here it is pointed
out that the hereditary nature of profession in Indian guilds makes them different
from the European guilds of the Middle Ages whose membership was invariably
based on the choice of an individual. It may, however, be pointed out that adopting
a family profession was more common with members of craftsmen’s guilds than
with members of traders’ guilds.

As regards the existence of the Guilds in India prior to the Buddhist/Jain
period, Thaplyal informs that scholars are divided on the issue of whether the
guild system was in existence in the early Vedic period. Some consider Vedic
society sufficiently advanced to warrant the existence of such economic organizations
and consider terms, like sreni, puga, gana, vrata
in Vedic literature as indicative of guild organization and sreshthi
as president of a guild. Others consider early Vedic society to be rural with
nomadism still in vogue and opine that the Aryans, preoccupied with war as they
were, could not produce surplus food-grains, so vital for enabling craftsmen
to devote their whole time in the pursuit of crafts. They hold that neither
terms like sreni and puga in Vedic literature denote a guild,
or sreshthi, the ‘guild president’. However, Thaplyal says that division
of labour under the varna system may have been conducive to the emergence
of guild organization. Agriculture, animal husbandry and trade, the three occupations
of the Vaisyas, in course of time developed as separate groups. In the Upanishads
(c. 6th century BC) there are several pieces of evidence regarding the existence
of guilds in that period.

The Mauryan period is highlighted by the extensive treatment given to Guilds
by Kautilya who considers the possibility of guilds as agencies capable of becoming
centres of power. Thaplyal points out that the Mauryan Empire (c. 320 to c.
200 BC) witnessed better maintained highways and increased mobility of men and
merchandise. The state participated in agricultural and industrial production.
The government kept a record of trades and crafts and related transactions and
conventions of the guilds, indicating state intervention in guild-affairs. The
state allotted guilds separate areas in a town for running their trade and crafts.
The members of the tribal republics that lost political power due to their incorporation
in the extensive Mauryan Empire took to crafts and trades and formed economic

Thaplyal considers the period c. 200 BC to c. AD 300 as the last phase of guilds
in ancient India. The decline of the Mauryan Empire (c. 200 BC) led to political
disintegration and laxity in state control over guilds, allowing them better
chances to grow. The epigraphs from Sanchi, Bharhut, Bodhgaya, Mathura and the
sites of western Deccan refer to donations made by different craftsmen and traders.
Guilds of flour-makers, weavers, oil-millers, potters, manufacturers of hydraulic
engines, corn-dealers, bamboo-workers, etc. find mention in the epigraphs. The
period witnessed a closer commercial intercourse with the Roman Empire in which
Indian merchants earned huge profits. The evidence of the Manusmriti
and the Yajnavalkyasmriti shows an increase in the authority of guilds
in comparison to earlier periods. Epigraphic evidence of the period refers to
acts of charity and piety of the guilds as also their bank-like functions.

Guild Laws

Apart from their socio-economic importance, the guilds must have exercised
considerable political influence as well in those times as is shown by Thaplyal
by quoting from the texts and the scriptures at length. Thaplyal says that Guilds
had their laws, based on customs and usage, regarding organization, production,
fixation of prices of commodities, etc. These rules were generally recognized
by the state. The laws were a safeguard against state oppression and interference
in guild affairs. The Gautama Dharmasutra enjoins upon the king to consult
guild representatives while dealing with matters concerning guilds. In Kautilya’s
scheme, a Superintendent of Accounts was to keep a record of the customs and
transactions of corporations. Manu enjoins that a guild member who breaks an
agreement must be banished from the realm by the king. According to Yajnavalkya,
profits and losses were to be shared by members in proportion to their shares.
According to the Mahabharata, for breach of guild laws, there was no
expiation. Yajnavalkya prescribes severe punishment for one who embezzles guild
property. According to him, one who does not deposit in the joint fund money
obtained for the corporation was to pay eleven times the sum by way of penalty.
The guild rules helped in smooth functioning of the guilds and in creating greater
bonds of unity among guild members.

Guild Structure

Thaplyal explains that the Guilds had three components: (a) the General Assembly,
(b) the Guild Chairman or the Head, and (c) the Executive Officers, each with
its well-defined sphere of jurisdiction.

(a) The General Assembly

All the members of the Guild constituted the General Assembly. Jataka stories give round figures of 100, 500,1000 as members of different guilds.
There is a reference to 1000 carpenters of Varanasi under two heads. This could be because the number was  considered large enough to make the guild unwieldy, though it may be pointed out that a few references to 1000  members of a guild, without division, do occur. The Nasik Inscription of the time of Nahapana refers to two weavers’ guilds at Govardhana (Nasik). Mention of bickering within large Guilds is not infrequent and it is possible that a place had more than one Guild of the same trade.

(b) The Guild Head

The head of a guild is often referred to as the jetthaka or pamukkha in early Buddhist literature. Often he is referred to after the occupation followed by the guild of which he was the head, e.g. ‘head of garland makers’ (malakara jetthaka), ‘head of carpenters’ guild’ (vaddhaki jetthaka), etc. Apparently the Guild Head exercised considerable power over the members of his Guild. Setthis were merchant-cum-bankers and often headed merchant guilds. The guild head could punish a guilty member even to the extent of
excommunication. Ancient texts do not seem to specify whether the office of the head of a guild was elective or hereditary though there are positive references to either. It appears that normally headship of a guild went to the eldest son. Succession is mentioned only after the death of the head and not in his lifetime, which would suggest that the head remained in office life-long.
The evidence of two Damodarpur Copper-plate inscriptions of the 5th century AD shows that one Bhupala held the office of nagarasreshthi for well nigh half a century, supports this.

(c) Executive Officers

To assist the guild head and to look after the day-to-day business of the guild, Executive Officers came to be  appointed. The earliest reference to Executive Officers is met with in the Yajnavalkyasmriti. Their number varied according to need and circumstances. Yajnavalkya says that they should be pure, free from avarice and knower of the Vedas. It is not specially stated whether the Executive Officers were elected by the Assembly or were nominated
by the guild head.

Functions of the Guilds

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.

Besides these functions, the Guilds could try their members for offence in
accordance with their own customs and usages, which came to acquire almost the
status of law. A guild member had to abide by both guild and state laws. The
Vasishtha Dharmasutra holds the evidence of guilds as valid in settling
boundary disputes. However the jurisdiction of guild courts was confined to
civil cases alone. All guilds acted as courts for their members but either only
important ones, or representatives of various guilds authorized by the state,
would have acted as courts for general public. Guilds, being organizations of
people of different castes following the same profession, would also have had
some Brahmin members, some of whom would have been Executive Officers and probably
they, with the help of members or Executive Officers of other varnas
would have formed the courts of justice.

Considering the distinction between the caste and the guild Thaplyal holds
that though similar in some respects, they were basically different. Guilds
were economic institutions; castes were social groups. Whereas caste is necessarily
hereditary, the guild membership is not so. One could be a member of only one
caste, but one could be a member of more than one guild. However, in areas populated
by people of the same caste membership of guild and caste coincided and the
head of the guild presided over the meetings of both guild and caste.

Lastly, Thaplyal looks into the relationship between the guild and the state
informing us that the Guilds enjoyed considerable autonomy, which came not as
a favour from the state but by their inherent right. The guilds safeguarded
the interests of traders and craftsmen against oppression by the king, as well
as legal discrimination they were normally subjected to. Manu enjoins upon a
king, to acquire knowledge of laws of the srenis and other institutions
while dealing with them. Yajnavalkya lays down that such rules of corporations
as are not against sacred laws should be observed. Even Kautilya, a champion
of state control over all spheres of activity, lays down rules for the protection
of artisans. Since the state earned a sizable income from taxation through guilds,
it naturally provided facilities to them by maintaining roads for transport
of merchandise and also granted subsidies and loans to them. Some prosperous
merchants, as members of the guilds, or otherwise, must have extended financial
support to kings in times of emergency. Kings honoured guild heads by offering
gifts. Guild heads were present at important state ceremonies. The heads of
guilds accompanied Suddhodana in welcoming the Buddha, and also Bimbisara in
paying a visit to the Buddha. Tradition believes that they, along with others,
waited for the coronation ceremony of Bharata, and also accompanied Bharata
to visit Rama at Chitrakuta. The naigamas participated in Rama’s coronation

There is no evidence of a guild or a combination of guilds attempting to capture
political power. The guilds of the period were local in character, with no central
organization. Interests of different guilds were of different kinds, sometimes
even conflicting and so they could hardly form a joint front against the state.
However, in case of contests for succession to the royal throne, they might
have helped the claimants of their choice in acquiring it. However, Kautilya
advises the king to see that heads of different guilds do not unite against
him, and win the support of the guilds by means of reconciliation and gifts,
and to weaken the ones as are inimical to him. He also advises the king to grant
land, which is under attack from enemy to the guild of warriors. Guild quarrels,
both internal and external, provided the king with appropriate opportunities
to interfere in guild affairs. Yajnavalkya enjoins that a king should settle
quarrels among guilds according to their usages and make them follow the established

So we find that Thaplyal in this article, well substantiated by literary evidence,
has tried to show that the social institutions that we generally attribute to
the ingenuity of the west were already present in the socio-economic structures
of ancient Indian society.

We had made such unique social innovations which served a variety of useful
functions: specialisation of crafts, quality control of products, defence against
state’s oppression, composing differences among different sections of society,
providing justice to the needy, charity to the poor etc. Guilds were perhaps
the earliest democratic institutions of the world.