Economy in Ancient Bharat and Vartta

Since the beginning of recorded history, man has created his own systems for surviving. Prehistoric or Stone Age man was a hunter-gatherer who travelled in packs from one area to another in search of food and shelter. The final phase of the Stone Age, also known as the Neolithic Age or the New Stone Age, is when humans first started practicing agriculture and domesticating animals like cattle, sheep, and goats, among other species. Crop cultivation caused man to settle in one location, which led to tiny communities that eventually grew into villages or Janapadas. Some of these rural communities also grew to become cities, also known as nagaras and Nigamas or market towns. As agriculture developed, it produced surplus grains, which sparked trade and commerce. In light of this, the three primary occupations that provided the majority of ancient and mediaeval pre-industrial civilizations’ economic foundation were agriculture, animal husbandry, and trade. Ancient Bharat was not an exception to this; in fact, philosophers and intellectuals in ancient Bharat gave these three a great deal of significance, and together they formed what became known as Vartta. The word “Vartta” is derived from the word “Vrtti,” and it refers to one’s means of support and the field of knowledge required for such support. Vartta has been practiced in Bharat since the Sindhu-Sarasvat Civilization, and there are numerous allusions to farming, animal husbandry, and trading in the Vaidik scriptures. By the beginning of the Mauryan Age (4th century BCE), Vartta was acknowledged as a field of knowledge, and most Bhartiya writings list Vartta as one of the chief duties of a monarch, obligating him to provide his subjects the same. In reality, the Manu Smriti claims that all three of the purusharthas of Dharma, Artha, and Kama are beneficial to human existence (Man Sm 2.224), which is how Vartta came to be connected to the pururshartha of Artha. Through the analysis of a few key texts, beginning with Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the current article provides a broad overview of the development of Vartta as a central idea in Ancient Bharat’s economy.

Kautilya’s Arthashastra about Vartta

The notion of Vartta holds a dominant position in ancient Bharat’s Economic Thought since it alludes to livelihood and the science or vidya to secure your livelihood. Along with “Anviksiki,” “Trayi,” and “Dandaniti,” Vartta has been given the status of “vidya,” or “a systematic knowledge system.” In his Arthashashtra, Kautilya referred to these four as vidyas (Arth 1.2.1). Additionally, these four vidyas, in Kautilya’s opinion, aid a man in comprehending dharma and artha (Arth 1.2.8). The Arthashashtra makes it abundantly apparent that the term “Anviksiki” encompasses the darsanas of Samkhya, Yoga, and Lokyata (Arth 1.2.10). In addition to being the refuge of all dharmas, this vidya interacts with the other two vidyas and functions as a torch that illuminates the other vidyas for us. The term “Trayi” alludes to the study of the three Vedas, namely the Rig, Yajur, and Sama. Kautilya also mentions the Atharvaveda in his Arthashashtra along with the Itihasa Veda. (Arth 1.3.2) These things make up the Veda, according to Kautilya. Agribusiness, animal husbandry, and trade are all implied by the term “vartta,” according to Kautilya: “Krsipasupalye Vanijya Cha Vartta” (Arth 1.4.1).

This vidya is particularly advantageous since it enables a person to access grain, animals (mostly cattle), money, forest products, and labour. A king may govern both his own subjects and those of his enemies with the aid of his army and treasury thanks to the Vartta Vidya. The final vidya, known as Dandaniti, aids in the practise and memorization of the aforementioned vidyas (Arth 1.4.3). Kautilya is adamant that a king who makes the best use of Dandanti is deserving of honour (Arth 1.4.10).

Kamandakiya Nitisara about Vartta

According to some academics, this work serves as a summary of the Arthashashtra. This piece is thought to have been created before the 7th century CE. v. (Shastri, 1912) Along with Anviksiki, Trayi, and Dandaniti, Vartta is referenced as a branch of knowledge in the second sarga of the book. According to the scripture, the monarch should focus on assuring the development of these vidyas after mastering his senses and seek assistance from individuals knowledgeable in them (kam Nit 2). The text then makes it plain that just these four are the four eternal branches of knowledge (Kam Nit 2.2), and it compares Vartta to the branch of knowledge that is concerned with the accumulation and dissipation of wealth (Kam Nit 2.7). Similar to the Arthashashtra, this text defines Vartta as including animal husbandry, agriculture, and trade (2.14), and Kam Nit 2.20 identifies these three activities as the Vaisyas primary sources of income. The four vidyas and the varna vyavastha’s linkages are also discussed in the text.

Vartta in Ramayana

Lord Rama’s counsel to Bharata (Ram’s brother) in the hundredth sarga of the Ayodhyakanda addresses the topic of Vartta in the Ramayana. As the head of the state, Bharata is expected by Lord Rama to be familiar with the three vidyas—the three Vedas, Vartta, and Dandaniti— (Ram 2.100.68). He queries Bharata about the inclusion of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, and Vaisyas in their separate responsibilities (Ram 2.100.40). The Vaisyas, whose source of Vartta is agriculture and animal husbandry, are shown to be crucial to the functioning of the state and the economy, and Lord Rama wants to make sure that Bharata loves the Vaisyas. He specifically asks how the Vaisyas, whose Vartta comes from trade, agriculture, and cow breeding, are doing (Ram 2.100.47). It is evident from the aforementioned examples that the monarch had to ensure that all of his subjects had a means of subsistence, especially those who are employed in agriculture, animal husbandry, and trade as these professions form the foundation of the economy.

Mahabharata about Vartta

Bhisma offers Yudhisthira advice on Rajadharma, or the duties of a king, in the Rajadharmanuasasana Parvan of the Mahabharata, which is a section of the Santi Parvan. The Bhisma discusses a number of topics, including the need for a king to have sufficient artha or dhana. According to Bhisma, the dharma of sages is to live on a meagre subsistence level, but the dharma of a king is complete when the king has the appropriate quantity of money in his possession (Mbh XII.8.12). He continues by saying that acquired riches gives rise to all kinds of noble deeds (Mbh XII.8.16). The source of dharma and karma, according to Bhisma’s counsel, is artha; without artha, it is impossible to achieve heaven or lead a fulfilling life on earth (Mbh XII.8.17):

Arthad Dharmasca Kamasca Svargascaiva Naradhipa |
Praṇayatrapi Lokasya Vina Hyartham Na Sidhyati ||

Additionally, in addition to dharma, kama, and svarga, artha is the sole way to attain listening to the shashtras, wrath, the development of bliss, and triumph over your enemies (Mbh XII.8.21). Artha was also strongly associated with the performance of Vaidika yagyas, and Bhisma informs Yudhisthira that performing yagyas, amassing wealth, and indulging in svadhyaya of the Vedas are the three primary responsibilities of a king as outlined by the shashtras (Mbh XII.8.27). The yajamana was required to offer dakshina following a yagya, especially one as great as Ashvamedha, and he could only do so if he had enough money on hand. One of a king’s main responsibilities was to obtain dhana, which he did by overthrowing other rulers and taking their treasure. War was a source of Vartta for rulers. We might infer from Bhishma’s extensive talk that poverty was something that was wholly undesired and that, in the absence of riches or lack of it, human existence was pointless. The sixtieth adhyaya of the Santi Parvan’s Mahabharata outlines the four varnas’ different responsibilities. A Vaisya’s dharma is performing yagyas, donating dana, studying the Vedas and Shashtras, and amassing money while upholding his purity (Mbh XII.60.21). The Vaisyas were expected to engage in trade, animal husbandry, and agriculture. Only the Vaisyas were employed in animal husbandry among these three professions, and they were tasked with caring for cattle in a manner similar to a parent caring for his offspring (Mbh XII.60.22). The text explains how a Vaisya may earn his living or vritti through caring for animals and claims that Prajapati himself has given this task to Vaisyas.

The responsibilities of each of the four varnas are explained by Lord Krishna in the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita’s eighteenth adhyaya. When the Lord states that agriculture, cow protection, trade, and commerce are the tasks of the Vaishyas that are born out of their own nature (B.G. XVIII.42), even if the word “Vartta” is not used, it is indicated that this is the case:

Krsigourakshyavanijyam Vaisykarma Svabhavajam |

Harivamsa about Vartta

The appendix text, or khila, of the Mahabharata is the Harivamsa. This text’s composition is typically dated to the first through third centuries CE. The main topics of this text are the life story of Lord Krishna and the Vrsni family he belonged to. The Bhavisya Parvan, the Vinu Parvan, and the Harivamsa Parvan are the three sections that make up this work. The text, which is a component of the Harivamsa Parvan, has a legend about Emperor Prthu Vainya in its fifth adhyaya. All natural events favoured him once he was crowned emperor, and as a result, his subjects grew to love him greatly. According to the sages, Prthus will ensure his citizens’ Vartta, or means of subsistence. The populace prayed to Prthu to provide for their needs. Pthu went after the ground, which had changed into a cow, in order to grant their wish. The earth instructed him to locate a calf for her so he could milk her for grains and other valuables. As per her request, Pthu also levelled her, and the narrative informs us that when Pthu completed this duty, towns and villages as well as farming, cow-herding, ploughing, and trade routes all began to develop. Sanatanah Vrttidah (H.V. 1.6.43) refers to Prthu as the original source of sustenance. According to this tradition, it was the king’s duty to make sure that his subjects had adequate means of subsistence.

 When Lord Krishna describes the gopas of Vraja’s pastoral subsistence to them in adhyaya fifty-nine of the Vinu Parvan, the term “Vartta” is used. According to Lord Krishna, the three primary vocations of mankind are agriculture, cattle herding, and trade, with trading serving as the primary activity of the gopas (H.V. 2.59.21).

Purana’s about Vartta

When Sage Narada reveals to Yudhisthira the Moksa Dharma for householders, the Bhagavata Purana briefly mentions Vartta. In Bhag Pur 7.15.29, he refers to trade and agriculture as two Varttas that prevent a man from achieving Bhagavat. In the Bhagavata Purana, Lord Krishna, just like in the Harivamsa, discusses Vartta with his father Nanda and the other gopas. He claims that Vartta can be divided into four categories: agriculture, trade, caring for livestock, and money lending (kusida). The gopas guard animals as one of these (Bhag Pur 10. 24.21). Money lending is added to the Vartta categories in this instance because it may have been a common employment during the early mediaeval era, when the Bhagavata Purana was being composed. Karmanta, or craftsmanship, is added to the list of occupations covered by the idea of Vartta in the Devi Bhagavata Purana (Personal Communication: Dr. Prachi Moghe).

Dharmashashtras texts about Vartta

In its seventh adhyaya, the Manu Smriti goes into great detail about the responsibilities of a king and asserts that a king must be taught the four vidyas—Anviksiki, Trayi, Dandaniti, and Vartta—by people who are skilled in them because they have no temporal boundaries. He needs to study the Vartta with the locals. Man Smr 7.43 In the opening slokas of the Rajadharmaprakaranam, the Yagyavalkya Smriti, which is the portion outlining the responsibilities of a king, mentions Vartta. The four vidyas, Anviksiki, Dandaniti, Vartta, and Trayi, are among the attributes the king should possess (Yaj Smr 13.311).


We can infer from the summary above that the idea of Vartta has been applied in some capacity throughout the majority of significant Indic writings. Between the material and transcendental worlds, the Bhartiya tradition has always attempted to strike a balance. The ancient Indian scholars were fully aware of the function Vartta will play in people’s lives and its effects on the economy. The task of ensuring that his subjects had a suitable means of subsistence was given to the king in order to enable them achieve the purushartha of Artha and provide stability and prosperity to the community. Despite favouring a simple lifestyle, our heritage has never praised abject poverty.

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