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SHRENI Described in many classical Sanskrit and Pali texts, shrenis were occupational groups or guilds. The fourth-century b.c. grammarian Pānini, referred to shrenis, though without a clear description. Later Hindu shastras, Buddhist Jataka tales, and other Buddhist literature described shrenis as village or town occupational groups that brought together individual workmen as well as associations of workmen in corporate bodies to pursue their common economic interests. Different texts identified shrenis of priests, doctors, warriors, farmers, carpenters, makers of irrigation devices, ironworkers, potters, oil pressers, cloth dyers, weavers, gardeners, garland makers, ship pilots, fishermen, betel sellers, ivory sculptors, musicians, courtesans, and even beggars and thieves. Accounts exist of individuals changing their professions (and therefore their shreni affiliations) several times. Accounts also exist of members of one family belonging to different shrenis.

Communities of shrenis sometimes became entire villages or urban neighborhoods. To be close to their work, shrenis of foresters lived near forests. Shrenis of blacksmiths, carpenters, potters, and weavers would live outside a city's walls in occupational villages or inside a city's walls in trade neighborhoods, located so that clients could find them and obtain their services. Such arrangements have sometimes been interpreted as precursors of India's later jajmani system. Where shrenis lived in identifiable neighborhoods, a head shreni (a shreshthin) could find himself functioning as a village headman (gramika), with many of the accompanying responsibilities.

As geographical, political, and economic environments changed, shrenis and their leaders sometimes chose to move. A fifth-century a.d. inscription described a shreni of wealthy Gujarati silk weavers migrating to Mandasor, where they donated enough funds to repair a temple to the Sun God they had endowed more than three decades earlier. After arriving in Mandasor, the shreni members entered a variety of different occupations, while still maintaining some consciousness of their earlier guild affiliations as silk weavers.

Accounts indicated that shrenis engaged in a broad range of collective activities. Some Buddhist orders required a married woman to receive the approval of her husband and his shreni before becoming a nun. Some shrenis handled disputes between husbands and wives. Others provided welfare benefits for their members, supporting them during their illnesses and caring for their widows and children after their deaths.

Shreni Organization

Classical texts described shrenis as headed by a shreshthin (the best, the elder, the most important). The shreshthin established his position by heredity or through selection by a shreni assembly. According to texts, shreni heads were typically aided by a few senior members of the shreni and by secretaries (kayasthas). On occasion, wealthy and powerful shreni heads participated in their ruler's regional councils and sometimes even became their ruler's advisers. Shreni heads were also described as participating in elaborate royal horse sacrifices (ashvamedha).

According to some accounts, local rulers generally supported a shreni's rights to regulate its members' wages and prices, to make contracts with other shrenis and even with private individuals, and to punish (and even expel) members who violated shreni regulations. Local rulers also recognized their own responsibilities to uphold and enforce whatever shreni contracts had been agreed upon.

Certain shrenis adopted or were assigned banners, fly whisks, and other insignia of their corporate life, which they could display on public occasions. Shrenis could have their own seals made of terra-cotta, stone, bronze, copper, or ivory, similar to the seals of rulers and ministers. Some shrenis collected regular membership fees, to which they added fines collected from delinquent shreni members and donations from contributors. Through the successful management of their funds, some shrenis became quite wealthy. They functioned as banks, lending money at lucrative interest rates to local merchants and other shrenis. They also lent money to local rulers, thereby gaining political advantages for themselves and their members. Records described shrenis organizing militias to protect their caravans and warehouses and then lending their militias (presumably under advantageous terms) to local rulers who wanted additional fighting men. Other records described merchant shrenis organizing caravans themselves and commissioning cargo ships for overseas trade.

Shrenis did not use their wealth exclusively to produce more wealth. An inscription at the famous Buddhist stupa at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, declared that in the first century a.d. an ivory workers' shreni donated funds to construct one of the stupa's four main gates. Hundreds of similar inscriptions with donors' names and affiliations gave evidence of shrenis' contributions through the centuries to building and renovating monasteries, stupas, temples, and religious communities.

Shrenis and Brahmanical Texts

The Buddhist Jataka tales made frequent references to shrenis. Although ostensibly tales of the lives of the Buddha before his final reincarnation in the sixth century b.c., the Jataka tales were not written down until perhaps as many as ten centuries later, during the time of the Guptan empire (4th–6th centuries a.d.). The world of shrenis described in the Jataka tales contrasted sharply with the world of ranked hereditary varṇas and occupations described in then-extant Brahmanical texts like the Laws of Manu. The Brahmanical texts elaborated upon the four varṇas of humans who emerged from the mouth, shoulders, thighs, and feet of Purusha, the original being. Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras were to marry within their varṇas and to follow their inherited varṇa occupations: Brahmans to teach and perform sacrifices, Kshatriyas to administer and defend the land, Vaishyas to produce and trade wealth, and Shudras to serve the three higher varṇas.

By contrast, in the Jataka tales a ruler assembled and consulted with eighteen shrenis—not Brahmans. Furthermore, the ruler created a new office, head of the shrenis, to which he appointed a capable leader. In the Buddhist Jataka tales, a Brahman voluntarily chose to engage in trade (the occupation of Vaishyas) without feeling the need to justify his choice on the Brahmanical basis of hard times. In the Jataka tales, parents discussed what profession their son should enter—unlike the Brahmanical texts, where the profession was preordained. In the Jataka tales, people could change their occupations regardless of birth or background, and could change them again if they so chose. In one Jataka tale, a merchant's slave was brought up so much like a young merchant that he was able to pass himself off as a real merchant and to marry the daughter of a wealthy trader. The first merchant learned of his slave's fraud but revealed it to no one, and the story ended happily for all.

The social and economic life described in the Jataka tales was reflected in such later literary works as the Panchatantra (Five treatises) and the Brihatkatha (Great story). In these and similar writings, Brahman priests and Buddhist monks and nuns appeared but played a minor role. The leading characters were kings and merchants seeking power, profit, and enjoyment in a world distant from the many constraints of Brahmanical texts. One cannot know to what extent the Jataka tales (with their occupational groups and shrenis) or the Brahmanical texts (with their varṇas and Brahman priests) accurately reflected society as it actually existed at any time and place in India's history.

Joseph W. Elder

See alsoCaste System


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