Patronage and community

ROMILA THAPAR

PATRONAGE is an essential activity in virtually all societies. It may begin in an informal way and not be very noticeable. But gradually as societies become more complex it becomes more formal and can even surface as an institution. At a basic level the concept assumes an approximate relationship between two entities, two persons, two institutions, where one is the donor, and the other is the recipient. Both these can increase in number. It can be as simple as a relationship within the family where the provider of the wherewithal becomes a kind of donor and the rest are recipients. A very small part of patriarchy can sometimes hint at patronage. The essential feature is that the donor and the recipient are unequal, and this feature is present in all the forms of patronage. Maintaining the inequality is in a perverse way, what allows of status being bestowed on the donor. And yet in a contradictory way it could be the donor that legitimizes the status.

The definition of patronage is popularly viewed as a restricted one: it involves the gift, or the wealth given by a person of superior status to one of an inferior status to enable the latter to carry out his/her activities. It involves various social categories. Patronage therefore can act as a catalyst or as a means of stabilizing an existing condition.

The item that is exchanged – the donation – can be in kind or in a monetary form or even symbolic. But the distinction between the two is clear. Donations in kind can be any moveable object that has some value; or it can be immovable such as land and property. The monetary donations make the idea more fluid. Moveable objects are generally consumable or are small objects. Immovable objects can be large. Objects are not only valued in currency but also have the possibility of being exchanged, and they may also have a symbolic value which has to be recognized. Money is different as it is a unit to use for exchange, or to finance other things. The exchange can be of tangible items for intangible acquisitions.

An aspect of patronage is the eligibility of the donor since the donor is the pivot of the system. Obviously, the donor has to be wealthy and preferably a person of some status so that the recipient is grateful to him and looks up to him as does the rest of society. This gives the donations social value as well. Caste and class therefore play an important role in defining the donor.

The donation creates a new relationship between the donor and the recipient, but if it is large enough it also creates a new institution. This happened with the establishing of a Buddhist stupa, or a Hindu temple or a mosque or a gurdwara or a church. These became new institutions controlled by the recipients of the donation but often under the supervision of the donor.

Some examples from early history might illustrate what I am stating. Direct examples of man-to-man patronage are given in the Rigveda in the dana-stuti hymns; hymns in praise of making a gift. A bard would compose a verse or a hymn in praise of his patron who was generally the chief of a clan. The composition would be in praise of the prowess of the chief, of his success in a cattle-raid or whatever hostility occasioned action against another chief. This was of great importance in a society of agro-pastoralists where the herding of cattle was economically a necessity, and cattle were the primary source of wealth. The bard who had composed the eulogy on the chief was rewarded by a small share of the wealth – or so the bard claimed. It was also said by some bards that chiefs could be niggardly. However, to maintain status, the bard always claimed to have received much wealth in cattle, horses, gold, chariots, and slave women.

The symbolic relationship had other manifestations. The bard maintained that it was his invocations to the deity that brought successful results, and this was what he was being rewarded for. The eulogy enhanced the status of the chief in the eyes of society. The stuti was the claim to fame of the chief but it also reiterated his right to be the chief. The gift-giving was a transference of wealth. Above all, the bard claimed that he had bestowed immortality on the chief by composing a eulogy on him.  How right this was. We today hear of these chiefs and their activities largely through the compositions of the bards. The eulogies by exaggerating the gift were nudging other chiefs to match the imagined gift.

In a society where status was ostensibly conditioned by birth, it was necessary to claim the highest lineage connections. These were provided by the genealogies kept by poets and bards and later by priests, and this also gave them some authority vis-à-vis the patron. The eulogy became the rhetoric of this relationship. The bard since he passed judgement on the lineage status of his patron not only enhanced his own status but came to be regarded as inviolate, thus acquiring his own authority. This in a sense also gave him the right to dissent. In some states in Rajasthan in later times, the bard could announce his disapproval of a royal act and threaten to fast unto death – a dharna. Should he die as a result of the fast, the guilt would be on the ruler, and who knows what calamity he might suffer. It would be a terrible blot on the ruler. The social reference to the bard and to the relationship with the ruler was a complex one and much beyond just that of a donor and recipient.

This then becomes one pattern of patronage. There is a category of person who has an almost independent standing in society and is respected for what he does, who also legitimizes in various ways those who come to power and need such legitimization. This is naturally more prevalent in periods of social uncertainty when upstarts come to power and need legitimation. It often takes the form in early times of a claim to kshatriya status in the social hierarchy. Curiously in the period prior to the Guptas, many dynasties were not kshatriyas and did not bother to acquire this status. But in the post-Gupta period, perhaps with the dominance of Brahmanism, a claim to kshatriya status is often made, and this then requires evidence, hence the importance of the keeping of genealogies. The tradition was also present in the composition of the prashasti/eulogy, dedicated to royalty and to others that were being honoured.

This activity is the function of the bard who memorizes the genealogies and the lesser priests who keep written records. This is also the process that illustrates the malleability of caste identities. In earlier history, many Rajput castes of uncertain origin claimed the status of kshatriya or  its equivalent. Today the more impoverished Rajput castes sometimes claim the status of an OBC since this enables access to certain social benefits such as education and employment. The relationship of the legitimizer and the legitimized is a continuous one in history although who constitutes which category may well change over time. Identifying this feature can provide worthwhile clues to understanding the social history of different periods.

The other form of patronage which also begins in early times and continues in various forms through history is of course religious ritual and forms of worship. Here the person who endows the ritual is the patron and one who performs it is the recipient, although the latter consists of those who perform it for others – the priests, and those who perform a small ritual by themselves – the usual worshipper.

In earliest times the major religious ritual was that linked to the sacrifice, the yajna. In the agro-pastoral societies that were the context to the Vedas and that time, the yajamana/the patron of the sacrificial ritual, was usually the chief of the clan who requested the priests to perform a yajna. He was then the patron and donated the vast amount in wealth required for constructing the huge altars and providing the goods and services required for the ritual that often went on for many days. The recipients were the priests who claimed to be in communication with the gods via the ritual and who prayed for the increasing power of the chief that would also bring about the prosperity of the clan.

The wealth of the kshatriya was consumed and destroyed in the course of the ritual. Some scholars have argued that this was an attempt by the brahmanas to keep the kshatriyas under control when they became too wealthy, by forcing them to expend their surplus wealth on the ritual. What is striking in this donor-donee exchange is that the brahmana gets the tangible wealth in fees, whereas the kshatriya gets the intangible wealth of status and celestial blessings. It is an exchange of material wealth for an immaterial abstract idea. This was also a form of exchange that had a historical continuity.

The rise of the Shramana religions – Buddhism, Jainism, Ajivikas – saw new forms of patronage. This was not only in terms of what was donated but also in the donors being multiple and coming from a cross section of society. Buddhism became well established in the period from the Mauryas to the Guptas, a time when Puranic Hinduism was starting to take the forms that came to fruition from the Gupta period onwards. Buddhism has marked its presence through the construction of viharas/monasteries, chaityas/halls of worship and even more dramatically in the building of stupas/mounds that entombed holy relics. These are found in slightly varying forms across the subcontinent, some on flat surfaces such as the east coast of the peninsular or others as cave structures in central India.

The stupa begins as a commemorative tumulus or enshrining a relic taken from a man thought to be holy and revered because of his pursuit of teaching and consequent liberation from karma. The stupa is relatively small in north-west India, grew larger in central India and the peninsula, still larger in Sri Lanka and became of an enormous size in Indonesia. Were the donations gradually increasing at these places thus allowing for larger and more fully decorated structures?

Inscriptions recording the donors to the stupa extended over a cross section of society. Wealth was largely in kind as well as in monetary form. Donations came from royalty but not exclusively, as they also came from the setthi-gahapati families/small-scale landowners and merchants, from artisans, and guilds of craftsmen, and from monks and nuns. Some craftsmen record their donation as the skill with which they carved a section of the sculpture of the stupa and the donation is listed as that from a guild of skilled workers. The donations of monks and nuns would be somewhat smaller simply because they were not allowed to retain personal wealth. The arrangements for these donations may have been through familial sources. Royalty was not heavily involved. In some cases, such as that of the Shungas, they are said to have been hostile to Buddhism.

Clearly these donors and recipients constitute a different segment of society from those of earlier times as also the religions being supported. The nature of exchange involved also differed. The making of a gift, dana, was in exchange for acquiring merit, punya, that would assist in liberation, in reaching nirvana. Such gifts could be made for oneself as also for others such as family members. Donors could be from the immediate locality or more distant places. Since many of the donations came from traders, the locations would depend on the reach of the trade. Buddhist monastic institutions were not themselves averse to participating in trading activities which provided additional income. Some of the donatory arrangements were a little complex. Thus, royalty would invest in a guild and the interest of the investment would be given as the donation. It is noticeable that some of the donors were women, and not necessarily from royal families. This was a relatively new feature.

I have elsewhere referred to this as community patronage to differentiate it from donors who tended to be the sole financiers of a religious structure and its rituals. The latter came more frequently when patrons were members of royalty. This is not to imply that the community was not involved in other forms of patronage but to say that these forms of patronage to Buddhist institutions were gathered from a wider body of people in a society than those in some other forms. It is a distinguishing feature of this patronage.

In the post-Gupta period, that is the latter half of the first millennium AD, the physical forms linked to patronage change, both in art and architecture with the change in religion. The focus of Buddhism is now limited to eastern India after which it gradually declines in the subcontinent, although it remains the premier religion in Central Asia and China, moving on to Japan and by the maritime route to South-east Asia. This replacement in the subcontinent comes with the rise of Brahmanism now linked to Puranic Hinduism, the Vedic religion having become by now more marginal in practice. The initial and widespread forms of Puranic Hinduism are mainly Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and the Shakta religion.

The changes are many and noticeable. The old deities Varuna and Mitra were overtaken earlier by Indra and Agni, and these in turn are now overtaken by Shiva and Vishnu. One major change is that the deities are no longer abstract as in the Vedas but are now icons based on anthropomorphic forms. Therefore, they have to be crafted and craftsmen have to be trained to make them.

The craftsmen’s guilds become important as the recipients of grants from patrons, either directly or indirectly. The huge sacrificial altars
of Vedic times give way to small shrines which from the Gupta period onwards take the form of the major places of worship. They start as a single room and eventually become vast complexes of buildings where the primary icon that is worshipped is housed in the central shrine. The objects of patronage are now the structures, that is temples, and the icons of deities. The forms are very different from the Buddhist as is the ritual of worship but the idea of a permanent place of worship may well have been borrowed from the Shramana religions.

The temple is not only the chief place of worship, but it is also in its precincts that the rituals are formulated and sometimes the texts are written. Later, however, some texts were written in the mathas occupied by brahmanas. The framing of the religion by reference to the Vedic texts now gives way to other texts, such as the Puranas dedicated to the new deities, as well as a range of commentaries. The popular literature such as the epics are also infused with aspects of this new worship. The texts are no longer regarded as revealed by the deities and are accepted as written by brahmana authors.

Patronage moves from a wide social spectrum as with the Buddhists, to a narrower and more elite patronage coming largely from royalty and the aristocracy and given to brahmanas. Large donations are given for the building of temples.  Numerous land grants are made to brahmanas for their well-being and the performance of rituals.

Extensive donations in the form of monetary grants, and property and gifts, were also made to the temple. The larger temple was viewed as an estate that employed vast numbers of people in various capacities. It came to be held that the temple was the private property of the presiding deity of the temple. This in fact meant that there was a body of administrators, brahmanas, that received the donations and paid out of this for new buildings and repairs of old parts and other expenses. The treasuries of the larger temples were always overflowing. Temple administration was also given rights to collect revenue from local villages according to some grants.

With the increase in the rights and revenues of the brahmana administration, the process of patronage also became more complicated, and was linked to the administration of the kingdom. The expertise of those running the complex temple administration had to include those who had knowledge of architecture, art, accounting, and revenue. This expertise is not included in the functions of the brahmanas as given in the Dharmashastras. It is more akin to those of the Buddhist monks who performed similar functions in relation to the monasteries. Brahmanas who were into trade, were also donors to temples as is stated in the Pehoa inscription where brahmana horse-traders make donations to temples from the profits of their trade.

Inscriptions on temple walls are sometimes legal documents recording the administrative rights and legal functioning of the temple as an institution. When it reaches this point then either the temple through its own resources is so rich that it does not require donations, or, and probably more often, it still receives donations since the richer the temple, the greater the status that it can claim and also bestow on its donors. Such inscriptions when they come from royalty and the officers of the administration of the kingdom, are indications of the political supremacy as also of the religious affiliation of the donor. Furthermore, those who administer the temple also become the legitimizers of political authority, not only in terms of their right to rule but also as conforming to what is required from a legitimate ruler. This is one level at which politics and religion are intertwined.

The administration of the temple as an institution parallels the Buddhist Sangha. It is a property owner; it houses the deity, and it is a source of legitimacy. It is thought of as speaking for the deity when taking decisions on rules of worship and of social behaviour. This leads ruling dynasties to refer to themselves as the feudatories of the deity. The Gangas refer to themselves as the rauta, the feudatories of Jagannath at Puri. Temple ritual imitated the daily routine of the royal household, and the deity was treated as the overlord. Its functioning integrated a hierarchy of services required from various castes. It prohibited the entry of untouchables to its sacred precincts.

The temple was thus a recognized social institution as well. This may be one explanation for why, when Hindu kings in a condition of fiscal crisis, desecrated and robbed the temples of their wealth, as did some kings of Kashmir as reported in the Rajatarangini, they are not quoted widely as behaving in a despicable way, perhaps to avoid giving publicity to it. The considerable wealth of temples was doubtless one reason why many were raided. In later times the difference of religion was in some cases an added reason.

The history of the patronage of religious institutions continues unbroken into later times with new forms and structures being added as new religious requirements needed them. The mosque was similar in its needs and functions to the temple as was the Sufi khanqah, the Christian church, the Sikh gurdwara. The patterns of patronage and the relation with the community are broadly parallel. Much of what I have said about the earlier institutions would apply to the later ones, although there would of course be some differences of identity.

I have referred to varying cultural categories that are involved in the relations between the donor and the donee and the result thereof. It can result in a prashasti or eulogy, or a structure associated with worship in particular religious rituals, or the construction and maintenance of such a complex structure that it required additional administrative controls.

We have given much attention to the patron and the donation in our studies of patronage, but less to the transformation of the recipient or to the actual creator of the cultural idiom required of the patronage. The relation between the donor and the donee may be confined to just an act of patronage, but the outcome may become a cultural form, and in some cases may ripple out extensively to accommodate other cultural forms. This happens frequently with changes in the idiom of form. Such changes have aesthetic differences which have to be discussed in terms of adhering to or differing from, the texts such as the Natyashastra. But it is the craftsman who is actually creating the form. What needs exploration is the process of persuading the craftsman to create a form other than that prescribed in the texts or currently receiving patronage.

Patronage therefore is a relationship of exchange, but since the two categories involved are unequal it also endorses authority and status. This becomes all the more important with the redefinition of culture as not something that emanates from the elite – as it was earlier defined – but as the pattern of living of an entire society in all its levels if existence. Given this, there is inherent in this inequality the germ of dissent in relation to the outcome of patronage. The dissent is expressed in the clash of identities or in the utilization of the patronage. We need therefore to be aware not only of the nature of the patronage but also what may evolve from it.