The word “Tax” is originated from the latin word taxare which means to feel, estimate, censure and as per the Webster dictionary first known use of the Word “Tax” relates back to 14th Century. As we go by the literal meaning of the word “tax” it means to assess or determine judicially the amount of (costs in a court action). Tax can be levied either on the sale and purchase of merchandise or livestock and from the past history we can also conclude that it was collected in a haphazard manner. Nearly 2000 years ago, there went out a decree from Ceaser Augustus that the entire world should be taxed. In Greece, Germany and Roman Empires, taxes were also levied sometime on the basis of turnover and sometimes on occupations. For many centuries, revenue from taxes went to the Monarch. In Northern England, taxes were levied on land and on moveable property such as the Saladin title in 1188. Later on, these were supplemented by introduction of poll taxes, and indirect taxes known as “Ancient Customs” which were duties on wool, leather and hides. These levies and taxes in various forms and on various commodities and professions were imposed to meet the needs of the Governments to meet their military and civil expenditure and not only to ensure safety to the subjects but also to meet the common needs of the citizens like maintenance of roads, administration of justice and such other functions of the State.
In India, the system of direct taxation as it is known today has been in force in one form or another even from ancient times. There are references both in Manu Smriti and Arthasastra to a variety of tax measures. Manu, the ancient sage and law-giver stated that the king could levy taxes, according to Sastras. The wise sage advised that taxes should be related to the income and expenditure of the subject. He, however, cautioned the king against excessive taxation and stated that both extremes should be avoided namely either complete absence of taxes or exorbitant taxation. According to him, the king should arrange the collection of taxes in such a manner that the subjects did not feel the pinch of paying taxes. He laid down that traders and artisans should pay 1/5th of their profits in silver and gold, while the agriculturists were to pay 1/6th, 1/8th and 1/10th of their produce depending upon their circumstances. The detailed analysis given by Manu on the subject clearly shows the existence of a well-planned taxation system, even in ancient times. Not only this, taxes were also levied on various classes of people like actors, dancers, singers and even dancing girls. Taxes were paid in the shape of gold-coins, cattle, grains, raw-materials and also by rendering personal service.
However, it is Kautilya’s Arthasastra, which deals with the system of taxation in a real elaborate and planned manner. This well known treatise on state crafts written sometime in 300 B.C., when the Mauryan Empire was as its glorious upwards move, is truly amazing, for its deep study of the civilisation of that time and the suggestions given which should guide a king in running the State in a most efficient and fruitful manner. A major portion of Arthasastra is devoted by Kautilya to financial matters including financial administration. According to famous statesman, the Mauryan system, so far as it applied to agriculture, was a sort of state landlordism and the collection of land revenue formed an important source of revenue to the State. The State not only collected a part of the agricultural produce which was normally one sixth but also levied water rates, octroi duties, tolls and customs duties. Taxes were also collected on forest produce as well as from mining of metals etc. Salt tax was an important source of revenue and it was collected at the place of its extraction.
Kautilya described in detail, the trade and commerce carried on with foreign countries and the active interest of the Mauryan Empire to promote such trade. Goods were imported from China, Ceylon and other countries and levy known as a vartanam was collected on all foreign commodities imported in the country. There was another levy called Dvarodaya which was paid by the concerned businessman for the import of foreign goods. In addition, ferry fees of all kinds were levied to augment the tax collection.