Articles and Commentaries |
March 1, 2024

The Notion of Welfare by State in Early India

Written By: Dr. Pallavi Prasad



The concept of a welfare state is considered a modern formulation, wherein, to reduce the ill-effects of an industrial society, the state provides basic provisions for its citizens, through interventions in healthcare, education, employment, housing, old age pension etc. Otto von Bismarck, who served as the first chancellor of the German Empire, is usually credited with the establishment of the first modern welfare state of an industrial society in the 1880s by rolling out several social welfare programs for ordinary Germans. However, the roots of such a concept go back to ancient India, wherein the notion that the protection of life and livelihood of its subjects is the prime responsibility of the state, was deeply ingrained in the socio-political thought of that time.

In the sixth century BCE, Gautam Buddha had recommended that the king should adopt measures for the upliftment of the living conditions of the people. Political treatises like Arthashastra instruct a king to place the welfare of his subjects among his foremost duties and expend state treasury on public works. The Mauryan ruler Ashoka undertook several welfare activities including the provision of medical facilities for the well-being of his subjects and also propounded a policy of Dhamma through his edicts, for promoting an atmosphere of concord and harmony in the society. Apart from Ashokan inscriptions, some other epigraphical records provide evidence of the welfare programmes undertaken by the Mauryan state. These are only a few examples that highlight some of the best practices that existed in early India.

The Notion of Welfare and State in Ancient India

Well-being or welfare of all is a recurrent theme in ancient Indian doctrines. Religious texts as well as various secular treatises of the ancient times are replete with concern for the happiness of every individual and society at large. The Dharmashastras emphasise that the well-being of an individual and the entire society can be achieved by the pursuit of the fourfold Purusharthas i.e. the great aims of human endeavour, at an individual level. These are – Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha which can be roughly translated as moral behaviour, wealth, worldly pleasures and salvation. An individual can have a meaningful sustained life and even achieve salvation after life, by earnestly pursuing these goals. Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhist philosophy, advocated the Atthanga-magga or the Noble Eight-fold path as a way of removing the root cause of suffering and overcoming desire. This path is actually the Middle Path of moderation between extreme indulgence and extreme asceticism which can lead to the attainment of ‘nibbana’ or salvation i.e. deliverance from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. It consists of the right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Apart from these spiritual interpretations of welfare, the close connection between the overall happiness and material conditions of people is recognised and the development of material well-being too is emphasised in these philosophical discourses.

The period around the sixth century BCE witnessed the emergence of several territorial states in north India. This process was accompanied by the rise of urban centres and expansion of agriculture and trade, leading to increase in socio-economic stratification. Buddhist and Jain texts enumerate 16 powerful mahajanapadas or states that flourished in India in the sixth century BCE, and try to offer an explanation for the process of state formation. According to Mahabharata (Velakar, 1948), state is a creation of gods and initially Virajas, but later Prithu was chosen as the King by sages, to purge an anarchical situation encapsulated in the term, matsyanyaya (law of the fish). Buddhist canonical texts provide an anthropological interpretation for the creation of states in Digha Nikaya (the book of long sayings) which envisages a type of a social contract, close to the one propounded by modern European political thinkers. In the Agganna Sutta (‘pertaining to beginnings’) it is stated that in face of an anarchical situation, men deliberated and elected a Mahasammatta, the Great Elect, to enforce justice for which they offered him a share of their harvest. With passage of time he became the Dharmaraj (the righteous king) and brought happiness to men by establishing Dharma i.e. rule of law. In the Cakkavatti-sihanada Sutta, the cakkavatti or universal monarch is hailed as the guardian of ethical authority. It is divulged that in order to solve social problems and dispel economic inequalities caused by inequitable distribution of wealth, the state has the right to enforce legislative power (Walshe, 1995).

At a general level, Buddha was aware of the importance of material well-being of an individual and the society at large. He recognised that if the poor are not able to produce wealth, it leads to poverty, which is at the root of immorality, theft, falsehood, violence, hatred, cruelty, etc. In Digha Nikaya he recommended some measures for eradication of poverty, such as provision of grain and other facilities to farmers, providing capital to traders and adequate wages to labour. These welfare activities provide a justification for the state and the taxation system. Like a pragmatist, he recognised that the way to control crimes in the society was to uplift the living condition of people by purging them from poverty and the king or state had a role to play in this scheme.

Kautilya’s Arthashastras and its Ideal King

Arthashastra, the Sanskrit classic text on statecraft, is traditionally considered a work of the fourth century BCE, written by Kautilya, also known as Vishnugupta or Chanakya, the chief minister of the first emperor of the Mauryan dynasty, Chandragupta Maurya. This political treatise is normative in nature, containing detailed prescriptions and proscriptions for the administration of a state by its ruler. It consists of 15 adhikaranas or books dealing with various aspects of internal administration (tantra), relations with the neighbouring states (avapa) and other miscellaneous subjects. It categorically states that artha (material well-being secured through livelihood) is superior to dharma (spiritual well-being) and kama (worldly pleasures) as the latter two are dependent on it (Singh, 2008: 322). It contains the description of the circumstances of the origin of monarchy in Book I. It states that when people were oppressed by the matsyanyaya (law of the fish according to which the bigger fish swallow the smaller fish) they chose Manu as their King and fixed one-sixth portion of the grain and one tenth of their goods and money as his share. It further proclaims ‘Kings who receive this share are able to ensure the well-being of their subjects’ [Arthashastra 1.13.5-7]. This theory seems to describe something like an original contract for the establishment of monarchy in which people agree to pay taxes to a monarch so that he can ensure security and well-being i.e. yoga-kshema of all.

This manual on statecraft frequently refers to the obligations of a ruler towards his subjects and lays down three-fold duties for him in the internal administration of the country viz. raksha, palana and yoga-kshema. Raksha primarily means the protection of the state from external aggression as well as protection of the person and property of his subjects. The entire Book Four, called kantakashodhan, is devoted to suppression of crime and protection of people from anti-social elements like deceitful artisans and traders, thieves, dacoits and murderers, as well as their protection from natural calamities such as fire, floods etc (Kangle, [1965] 2010:117). Palana can be interpreted as the provision of security by maintenance of law and order within the state. Book Three is concerned with law and its administration as it contains a complete code of law. Yoga-kshema implies the idea of welfare, well-being, including the idea of safeguarding the happiness and prosperity of the people. In Book One it is enjoined ‘In the happiness of his subjects lies the happiness of the king; in their welfare his welfare. He shall not consider as good only that which pleases him but treats as beneficial to him whatever pleases his subjects’ [Arthashastra 1.19.34].

The political treatise defines welfare as ‘the increase in economic activity, the protection of livelihood, the protection of vulnerable segments of society, consumer protection, the prevention of harassment of citizens, and the welfare of prisoners and labor’. In order to ensure the economic well-being of the people through increased opportunities of livelihood, Book Two advised the ruler to undertake a host of productive activities. They include activities such as sunyaniveshana i.e. settlement of virgin land; setubandha i.e. building of dams, tanks, wells and other irrigation facilities; vraja i.e. providing pasture for cattle; vanikpatha i.e. opening trade-routes and ensuring safety on them; khani i.e. working of mines; exploiting timber and elephant forests; construction of places of punyasthana or pilgrimage, groves and roads for traffic both by land and water; setting up of market towns, industries and manufacturing units and so on [Arthashastra 2.1.1,19-20]. The king is advised to provide new settlers with seeds, cattle, tax concessions and remissions in initial years and even cash in form of loans to help them reclaim land and expand agriculture [Arthashastra 2.1.13-14]. The king may provide sites, roads, timber and other necessary things to those who construct reservoirs on their own record. On one hand these undertakings provide livelihood to people and furthered the welfare of the subjects, on the other hand they expanded the economy and augmented the resources of the state. It is recognised that a flourishing economy is beneficial for both the state and its people.

Arthashastra advises kings to take into account the welfare of all beings in formulating state policies. The interests of the subjects should be allowed to prevail over the interest of the state. It directs that the sale of commodities, imported or indigenous, should be arranged in such a manner that it is beneficial for the subjects while any profit that may be harmful to the subjects should be avoided [Arthashastra 2.16.4-6 & 4.2.27,35]. A paternalistic ideal is set before the ruler. In accordance with this attitude, it is argued that the kingdom will prosper only if the King regards his subjects with the same concern as a father regards his children. It is stated that when the subjects are struck down by natural calamities, the ruler should take care of them like a father [Arthashastra 4.3.43]. The third chapter of Book Four provides details of measures to be taken for the relief of the subjects in case of natural calamities like floods, fire, epidemic, famines etc (Kangle, [1965] 2010: 234). It recognises that like the head of a family has a responsibility of the extended family, the king or government has a crucial role to play in providing security and maintaining the material well-being of the entire country and its people. It is laid down that the king should provide maintenance for the orphans, minors, the aged, the infirm, the afflicted and those in distress, who have no one to look after them. He is further asked to provide subsistence to the helpless women when they are carrying and also to the children they give birth to as well as childless women [Arthashastra 2.1.18-26]. It asserts that the King shall protect agriculturists from the molestation of oppressive fine, forced labor and unjust exactions from corrupt officials; herds of cattle from thieves, animals and cattle disease; clear the roads from molestations of courtiers, robbers etc and even protect them from being destroyed by herds of cattle. Punishment is laid down for officers who are responsible for extortion from the subjects [Arthashastra 2.9.15-16]. The text lays down the minimum wages for laborers and herdsmen as one pana (silver coin) and a quarter per month over and above the food for them and their families [Arthashastra 2.24.28]. It elaborates rules concerning the proper treatment to be given to dasas (slaves), and debt bonded labour, both male and female, and provides appropriate penalties for their violation. These rules insist on a humane treatment for various kinds of slaves and emphasise their right to freedom on the payment of a ransom-amount. The text provides for stringent checks against fraudulent practices in trade like adulterating goods or manipulating prices or giving short weight and measures etc. Severe punishments are laid down for prison officers exceeding their authority by harassing, assaulting or maiming prisoners or criminally approaching a female prisoner or even preventing them from taking their meals or answering nature’s calls [ Arthashastra 4.9.21-27].

The rules about the construction of prison-house include construction of separate wards for males and females, with halls, sanitary arrangements, provision for protection against fire and even provision for worship [Arthshastra 2.5.5-6]. It is stated that out of the various kinds of tortures recommended for securing a confession of a crime, only one torture is to be applied on any one day and there is to be no torture on two successive days. Torture is prohibited in the case of a pregnant women or a woman in the first month after delivery. The King is advised to use his power of danda i.e. coercive power of the state, to ensure the protection of the subjects and to enable the weak to hold their own against the strong. He is nevertheless advised to use danda with great care as a just use of this power secures the protection of people along with the happiness of the ruler, while its unjust use could have serious implications leading to discontentment or disaffection of his people, the most serious being a revolt of the subjects against the ruler [Arthashastra 1.4.12].

The text lays a lot of emphasis on starting productive enterprises and pursuing successful economic policies that create means of livelihood under state control. These recommendations are not just altruistic measures, but have a clear aim to augment the revenues of the state and appropriating surplus for the state treasury. At the same time the treatise warns, a King who impoverishes his own people or angers them by unjust exactions will lose their loyalty [Arthashastra 7.5.27]. Thus, a fine balance needs to be maintained between the welfare of the people and enhancing the resources of the state. The maintenance of law and order through an efficient administrative as well as just judicial machinery is one of the primary responsibilities of a state. The entire Book Four is devoted to the suppression of criminal activities with provision of punishment to thirty kinds of criminals as well as other anti-social elements like deceitful merchants, corrupt officials etc, who are identified as thorns of the society. It is recognised, ‘A king meting out unjust punishment is hated by the people he terrorises while one who is too lenient is held in contempt; whoever imposes just and deserved punishment is respected and honoured [Arthashastra 1.4.7-10]. While exploring issues of social welfare, the text advises the king to create buffer stocks of grains and other products in state stores to prevent a wide fluctuation in prices and also to create reserve stock which could be distributed during natural calamities, giving tax exemptions to the affected population and initiating public projects such as building forts around major strategic holdings, construction of irrigation waterways for its people. It also lays down regulations for the protection of wild life, providing a long list of punishments for cruelty to animals, provisions for veterinary doctors, creation of animal sanctuaries etc.

The ideal ruler, according to Arthashastra is one who takes care of his subjects like a father, invests in the economy to augment the resources of the state as well as its people, maintains law and order through an effective administrative machinery and a just judicial system, guards against fraudulent practices and provides support to ‘ those who have necessarily to be maintained’ by the state [Arthashastra 1.12.1]. It enumerates the seven essential elements of the state as svamin, the King; amatya, the minister; janapada, the territory settled with people; durga, the fortified capital; kosa, the treasury; danda, the army or justice and mitra, the ally. However, it needs to be kept in mind that this manual on statecraft is normative in nature. The detailed prescriptions and injunctions are mere recommendations for a king which could be put into practice by a well-intentioned ruler. In a monarchical setup a great deal often depended on the personality and will of the particular ruler. Instead of reflecting the reality of the times the text mirrors the ideal of its times which aims at welfare of all.

Ashoka and his Dhamma

The well-being of his people through the propagation of dhamma was the primary concern of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. Ashoka’s inscriptions are divided into two main categories, the 14 major rock edicts, including Separate Rock Edict 1 and 2 of Dhauli and Jaugada, and the seven pillar edicts that are discovered in different places all over India with minor variations. These inscriptions provide an insight into Ashoka’s ideas about his role as a king and even his own assessment of his success at dissemination of Dhamma. The ideals of kingship as discerned through his edicts on Dhamma include ensuring the welfare of all beings and his subjects in this world and the next. In Separate Rock Edict 1, exhibiting a paternal attitude he expresses, ‘All men are my children. Just as with regard to my own children, I desire that they may be provided with all kinds of welfare and happiness in this world and the next world, I desire the same for all men’. He sought to ensure peoples’ welfare by planting beneficial medicinal herbs, roots and fruit bearing trees and digging wells along the roads, building resting places and providing medical care for people as well as animals in his empire (Major rock edict 2). Ashoka created a special cadre of dhamma mahamatras in the 13th year after his consecration, to spread the message of Dhamma within the kingdom and among border people. They were given the responsibility of promoting the welfare of prisoners and releasing those who were afflicted, aged or had children, organising charities and working for the welfare and happiness of all sects (Major rock edict 5). The ceremony of Dhamma is described as consisting of proper courtesy to slaves and servants, obedience to mother and father, generosity towards friends, relatives and acquaintances as well as Brahmanas and Shramanas, and abstaining from killing living beings (Singh, 2008: 352).

Generation of an atmosphere of concord and mutual respect among people of different religious communities is an important aspect of Ashoka’s Dhamma, which aims at the welfare of all. In Major rock edict 12 he urges people to exercise restraint in praising their own sect and in criticising other sects, while trying to honour and understand each other’s religion. In the 6th pillar Edict, Ashoka states that the purpose of his edicts was a concern for the welfare and happiness of his subjects, who, if they ordered their lives according to the principles of Dhamma, would attain happiness in this world and in the next world too. Major Rock Edict 6 and Separate Rock Edict 2, refer to the debt that he owes to all living beings, which he wanted to discharge by fulfilling his most important duty of promoting the welfare of the whole world, remaining in touch with people’s affairs at all times and promptly dispatching public business. He instructs ‘At all times, whether I am eating, or am in the women’s apartments, or in my inner apartments, or at the cattle-shed, or in my carriage, or in my gardens- wherever I may be, my informants should keep me in touch with public business’ (Major rock edict 6). It is through the practice of such a Dhamma, Ashoka desired to enhance the well-being of all men as well as animals inhabiting his empire.

Other Inscriptional Testimonies

The epigraphical testimonies of Sohgaura, Mahasthan and Junagarh\Girnar inscriptions provide evidence of some of the welfare activities undertaken by the Mauryan state. The Sohagaura inscription of Gorakhpur is a short inscription of four lines that recorded an order by the mahamatras of Shravasti to distribute and not withhold, the contents of the storehouses of five places—Triveni, Mathura, Chanchu, Modama, and Bhadra, in case of outbreak of drought. The Mahasthan inscription from Bagura district of Bangladesh records an order to the mahamatra of Pundranagar, to take adequate measures to relieve distress caused to people on account of famine. The measures undertaken included the advancing of a loan in coins and distribution of paddy from the granary to help them tide over the calamity (Hazra, 2002:43-60). The Girnar inscription of Junagarh records that the construction of a water reservoir known as the Sudarshana Lake was begun during the time of Chandragupta Maurya and completed during the reign of Ashoka. These famine relief measures and construction of irrigation facilities would have surely provided respite to the distressed population of the concerned area. These inscriptions, along with the internal evidence of Ashokan edicts sufficiently demonstrate that the early Indian state, especially during the Mauryan period, recognised its responsibility and played an active role in advancing the welfare of its subjects. The Mauryan state expended state treasury on the construction and maintenance of roads, wells, and rest-houses, of building irrigation facilities such as the dam on the Sudarshana Lake in Girnar, providing medical treatment for men as well as animals, and planting of mango-groves, banyan trees, medicinal herbs, roots and other useful trees.


The idea of advancement of welfare of people through active state intervention is clearly envisaged in the socio-political doctrines of ancient India. Welfare measures like enhancing economic activities, providing employment opportunities, investing in public works, relief measures during calamities, medical facilities, accountability and accessibility of the king, safeguards against fraudulent practices etc are some of the ideas that comprise the notion of welfare in the texts and inscriptions of early India. While the onus of enhancing mental and spiritual well-being of an individual lies on the concerned person, the responsibility of ensuring material welfare and social justice is largely recognised as the responsibility of the state or the government of the day.

Author Brief Bio: Dr. Pallavi Prasad is a Professor in the Department of History, Satyawati College, University of Delhi.

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