Guilds of Ancient India - The Shreni Philosophy
Imagine a pre-Mauryan marketplace. Merchants hawk their wares as you move past blocks of things on sale - spices, stones, cloth, animals. In the higher recesses of the market, groups of people sit huddled together, similar not in appearance, but in purpose.
Ancient India had some of the most intricate social systems and well-framed social networks that we’ve known for centuries. They had a deep understanding of how to arrange interactions in such a way that all those involved would be benefited at large. It is in this ancient knowledge that they forged the concept of a ‘Shreni’ or a guild.
What is a ‘Shreni’?
Wikipedia defines it as - “Shreni, 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.”
Typically, these groups were egalitarian. They worked in the interest of the people in it.
However, there were positions within a Shreni, made to ensure its smooth functioning.
The General Assembly: The ancient Jataka stories say that there were anywhere between 100-1000 members in one guild. All members that practised the same profession and banded together constituted this Assembly.
The Guild Head - ‘Jetthaka’ or ‘Jyeshtha’: Early Buddhist literature points us to a Head-like figure called the ‘Jetthaka’. This person was referred to by their occupation - for example, 'head of garland makers' (malakara jetthaka), 'head of carpenters' guild' (vaddhaki jetthaka) and so on. The Guild Head had considerable power in the structure. They could punish, banish, and fine members of the guild for wrongdoings. Usually, the position went to an experienced member of the guild.
Executive Officers: Apart from the head, there were officers that handled day-to-day affairs of the guilds. The number of officers varied, depending on the needs of the members.
At first glance, guilds seem like an adornment - an entity created to showcase a sort of superficial unity of economics. Once I had the opportunity of probing further, I discovered that there is much more to this simple organization than meets the eye. The most comprehensive study of ancient Indian guilds to my knowledge has been done by K.K. Thaplyal.
An interesting section in Indian history that Thaplyal looked at was the decline of these guilds. How could these structures - seemingly so beneficial for all those who are involved - be wiped out completely? The answer lies in state control. Towards the beginning of the Mauryan period, the authorities or the state started influencing more and more control over trade and commerce. People who were forming these guilds on their own, suddenly found that the structures put in place by the state were hampering their workings. The Mauryan period, in particular, shifted towards central control. This model was obviously incompatible with the guilds.
Perhaps such a situation is seen even today - where groups of artisans do not fit into the consumerism of the modern economy. Perhaps state intervention is falling short today too, making it tough for artisans and workers to work sustainably and to their benefit. Even as Indian Handlooms are celebrated not just in our country, but across the world, we still see that the sector itself has artisans who are unable to cope with the demands of the economy. Such questions plague us at Shrenis, and thus, our work goes into understanding how we can help in addressing them.
The complex layering of the system which had interplay and inclusiveness has become scary for an outsider, but also for urbanites. This system is teetering on the brink of total extinction. It is only through participation and appreciation of the crafts that we can hope to rebuild them.
The Shreni Factor
How fitting that from a culture so ancient came such strong ideas of socio-economic structures. Even more fitting for me that my organization follows these ideas.
Our founder, Sudhir Kamath, gave a lot of thought into the process of coming up with Shrenis. “The ancient guild system still has vestiges in our indigenous industries, which are occupational communities. This is evident by the names of the Upajatis, which are based on these occupations; for example, the Padmashalis, the Devanga community - that are still into weaving. Similar examples are Vishwakarmas, Kumharas, and so on. The social structure that existed earlier still guides a lot of the behaviour of these communities. “
At Shrenis, our work is aimed at bringing back the kind of consolidated economic strength and sustainability that we saw in our namesake. In our work with communities, we rely on the experience of ‘Jyeshthas’ - the elders who have faced situations that far outnumber and outweigh our experience in the field. We learn from their expertise, becoming conduits to use this knowledge to the benefit of the community itself.
In conversations with my seniors, what struck the most was a wish to bring back the organizational expertise of the artisans themselves. What the ancient Indians did through their Shrenis is essentially give themselves power over their work in a way that is most profitable to them. Our efforts are along the same lines - of bringing back structures that were built for the sole purpose of empowering the ones that need them the most. It’s like Sudhir always says - “The identity and sense of respect that these occupational groups used to feel - that’s what we need to bring back, and that’s what we will bring back.”
Team Shrenis wishes you a very happy Independence Day! Conversations in our office have always revolved around the philosophy of ancient India, and this has been our effort to bring them to you. Drop a comment below and tell us what you think!
- Ancient Indian Crafts. Ancient India Times. Retrieved from https://ancientindiatimes.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/ancient-indian-crafts/.
- Shah, M., & Agarwal, D. Sreni (Guilds): a Unique Social Innovation of Ancient India. Infinityfoundation.com. Retrieved from https://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/h_es/h_es_shah_m_sreni_frameset.htm.
- Thaplyal, K. Iks.iitgn.ac.in. Retrieved from https://iks.iitgn.ac.in/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Guilds_in_Ancient_India.pdf.