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The Merchants of Rigveda

Tensing Rodrigues


Having gone a long way in shearing off the myth and mystery surrounding the bramhana and kshatriya in Konkan, one question still remains unanswered: who are vaishya or, in local parlance, vani?

We have said that the caturavarna vyavastha was but a post-facto framework to fit into a hierarchy the various jana (peoples) that the arya encountered as they moved east and south from their homeland in the Sarasvati valley; varna was all about the colour of the skin, as the very word implies. The arya called themselves the bramhana. Those they encountered as they moved to the east in the Indo-Gangetic plain, were called kshatriya; perhaps these were only a shade less fairer than them. But those that they met as they proceeded south could not fit in the kshatriya fold – they were considerably darker; these they put in an ‘one fits all’ basket called the sudra. But the caturavarna vyavastha placed a third category between the kshatriya and the sudra – the vaishya. Who were these? Were they differentiated by colour or geography?

We still do not know. In Konkan, the category does exist among the Hindus; it conforms to the place allotted to it by the caturavarna vyavastha. But it has totally disappeared from among the Christians; some historians have claimed that it has been subsumed among the chadd’ddi. [Pissurlenkar, 1936: O Elemento Hindu da Casta Chardo, O Oriente Português, Vo. XXX, 211] Today we explore the scanty resources available to speculate on the origin and evolution of the vani identity.

We begin with the Rigveda. Hymn 66 of the Book VIII of RV reads as follows: “indro visvana bekanata nahardrsa uta karatva paninrabhi ||.”(Stanza 10), meaning “Indra, the king of Gods, won over bekanata and pani.” Who are these bekanata and pani? Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary defines pani as a bargainer, miser, niggard, especially one who is sparing of sacrificial oblations. According to Vedic Index Of Names And Subjects of Macdonell-Keith the natural sense of bekanata is “usurer”. Book VI of RV has some direct and indirect references to pani. RV 6.051.14 reads: “aravanah soma no hi kam sakhitvanaya vavasuh | jahi nayatrinam panim varko hi sah.” (Soma, these pressing-stones have called aloud to win thee for our friend. Destroy the greedy pani, for a wolf is he), which conveys the same opinion about the pani. The principal grudge against the pani seems to be that they do not offer gifts to the Bharadvaja priests during the sacrifices. There are other stanzas in Book VI which could be referring to pani, though they do not explicitly use the word: “Penetrate with an awl, O Sage, the hearts of avaricious churls. And make them subject to our will. Thrust with thine awl, O Pusan: seek that which the niggard’s heart holds dear. And make him subject to our will. Tear up and read in pieces, Sage, the hearts of avaricious churls. And make them subject to our will.” RV 6.053.05-07. Could these niggards and avaricious churls be references to pani? It appears that the term pani actually meant a trader or merchant as in vipanin. Probably they were financially well endowed and therefore did not feel the need for placating the bramhana; and there from arose the bramhana anger and the hatred for them. The pani seem to be quite in contrast with the kshatriya, who were generous in their patronage to the bramhana.

RV does sing well of those pani who supported the bramhana liberally: “Brbu hath set himself above the panis, over their highest head. Like the wide bush on Ganga’s bank. He whose good bounty, thousand-fold, swift as the rushing of the wind, Suddenly offers as a gift. So all our singers ever praise the pious Brbu’s noble deed. Chief, best to give his thousands, best to give a thousand liberal gifts.” (RV 6.045.31-33) Brbu is a pani who has ‘set himself above’ the rest to donate liberally to the Bharadvaja priests. What did Brbu donate? Most believe that the wealth of the pani consisted of cattle; if one is to take the last verse literally, Brbu must have donated thousand heads of cattle to the Bharadvaja priests.

Who were the pani? The fact that they feature in RV, and that too as early as the sixth mandala, implies that they lived close to where the bramhana started from; so that would be in the western Indo-Gangetic plain. But that does not rule out their presence elsewhere. Some historians believe that pani were merchant ‘tribes’ that lived all over India. The name might have varied: pani, phani, panab or panamb, or some variation of that; it has perhaps survived in place names like Panvel, Panaji, Paniyur, Paniyadi, Panambur, Paner, Pane Mangalur, etc. The word bekanata also seems to point to a similar origin; it could have been paikanata or baikanata, meaning the nata (naḍu or land) of the paika or baika. Paithan, Begur, Bekapalli, Bikaner and Baikampadi are some place names that have survived – probably they meant sthan, thane or kampadi of the paika or baika. Many of these place names – having the pani root or the paik or baik root – happen to be centres on ancient trading routes: Panvel, Panaji, Begur, Pane, Mangalur, Bikaner and Paithan. If these place names are indeed related to pani, paik or baik, then it proves to some extent the contention that these merchant janas were spread out across the country.

It is very likely that pani were itinerant merchants travelling across the country selling diverse wares – basically carrying products from one place to another, and making their livelihood out of that. Pani could have changed into bani over time, becoming bania or baniya at some places; at  other places at some time it might have changed to vani; p > b > v is a common change in Indian languages, particularly in southern India. Similarly, paika>baika could have changed to vaika, eventually leading to vaishya; as paika changing to paiso or paishe in Konkani. Were pani different from paika or baika? We do not know. RV 8.066.10 refers to them separately; but there is no further reference to bekanata.  If they were indeed different, in what way?

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