The institution of feudalism or “Samanta” was the principal innovation which clearly divide the post-Gupta period from the other periods of ancient India. The term “Samanta” means “neighbour” and referred to the independent ruler of an adjacent territories in the Mauryans period as is evident from the “Arthasastra” of Kautilya and edicts of Ashoka the Great.
This term was used by the law givers in the sense of neighbouring proprietor of land in the pre-Gupta period. Even Samudragupta in his “Allahabad Prasasti” indicated “Pratyantanripati” or “border kings” were like the “Samanta”, in original sense of the term.
But by the end of Gupta rule (6th century A.D.), new meaning of the term had gained the momentum and this term was used for a subjugated but reinstated tributary prince of a country or dominion.
This development of “Samantas” was a distinctive structural feature of the growth of feudal regimes. In the earlier period of ancient India administrators had been imposed from the top by the emperor or king. But from the post
Gupta period the feudal dominion was controlled by the subjugated and reinstated princes who were obliged to pay a tribute and to serve “‘the king loyalty.
In the late Gupta period, this type of administrators were occasionally found in the boarder provinces but during the Harshavardhana reign and later on they became powerful figures, even in the core area of the kingdom.
They enjoyed the autonomy within their territory and soon excelled the provincial governor in wealth and prestige.
In order to control these “Samantas” or mighty subjects into the hierarchy they were given high positions and rank at the King’s court. Thus, king of Valabhi in Western India was defeated by Harshavardhana not only to gain recognition as “Mahasamanta” but rose to the high positions of a “Mahaprathihara” or “Guardian of the Royal Gateway” and “Mahadandanayaka” or “Royal field Marshal”.
Consequently, the high officials of Central court demanded similar recognition as the defeated kings and princes obtained and gradually they obtained it. But the magnificent title alone could satisfy them. They also wanted some territory or land with it. Then, this was the process of feudalism in the beginning.
This process of feudalism or “Samantavada” was accelerated by the two causes- first, the lack of money for the payment of salaries and second, the idea that royal prestige depended on the size of a king’s “samantachakra” or circle of tributary kings and princes.
The old chronicles and texts on the art of government e.g. the “Arthasastra” provide a detailed list of the salaries of officers of different categories but Huein-Tsang reported that certain, high officers received their salaries in cash even in seventh century.
But the decline in trade and scarcity of coins made it necessary for officers to be paid by the assignment of revenue of some areas. Some of the contemporary chronicles tells us that kings were
eager to cancel such assignments especially if the officer displeased the ruler. However, the process of feudalism or “SamantaVada” was generally powerful than the will of the central ruler.
Banabhatta in “Harshacharita” mentioned the several types of “Samantas’ or “feudals’. One of them, the ‘Samanta’ was the lowest and ordinary type of retainer. “Mahasamanta ” was evidently a higher “Samanta” then the ordinary feudal. Similarly, “Satru-Mahasamanta” was a conquered enemy chief.
“Aptasamantas” were perhaps those who willingly accepted the vassalage of the overlord. “Pradhanasamantas” were the most trusted hand of the emperor who never disobey or object their advice.
“Pratisamanta” was retainer of grant, opposed to king or merely a hostile retainer. “Anurakta- Mahasamantas” was mentioned by Banabhatta only once, might be those one who were attached to their overlord.
In the third quarter of the fifth century A.D. the term “Samanta” was used to mean retainer in South India for the words to express “Samantachudamanih” or best feudatories’ which appears in a Pallava inscription of the Santivaraman who ruled from 455 to 475 A.D. In the last quarter of the fifth century A.D. also the term used in some grants of Southern and Western India in the sense of retainer of land or area.
In the North India, the earliest use of the term in a similar sense appears in a Bengal inscription and in the “Barabur Hill Cave Inscription” of Maukhari chief Anantavarman(in early sixth century A.D.), in which his father is described as “Samantachudamanih” of the imperial Guptas. The other most important indication of the term is found in the “Mandasor Pillar Inscription” of Yasodharman who ruled from 525 A.D. to 535 A.D.
In the “Pillar Inscription” he claims to have subjugated the “feudatories” or “Samantas” in the whole of Northern India. During the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. the rulers of Valabhi assumed the title of “Mahasamanta” or “Samanta-maharaja”.
By the passage of time and gradually the application of term “Samanta” was extended from defeated chiefs or prince to royal officials or courtiers of the kings such as in the inscriptions dated in the “Kalachuri chedi” era, from 597 A.D. onwards “Samantas” and “rajas” took the places of “Uparika” and “Kumara matyas”.
During the Harshavardhana reign, the terms “Samantamaharaja” and “Mahasamanta” appears as titles of great imperial officers.