A popular assumption is that modernity gave rise to democracy, ending centuries of autocracy, and therefore governments for the masses, of the masses and by the masses were only installed in many parts of the world only in the modern era beginning in the West. This gave tremendous power to the masses in choosing their own rulers and removing the ones they didn’t like in the elections. But, contrary to this assumption, India in ancient times did have its own form of democracy and republics.
While western style democracies, with their earlier pro-genesis purportedly in the Magna Carta and in Anglo-Saxon tribal traditions of assembly, have come into vogue and spread around the world only within the last half century, there have been several independent evolutions of democratic institutions. And ideas representing the will of the people in the way they are governed date back to the earliest days of human civilization.
Popular conceptions of the evolution of democratic thought begin with their inception in Greek city states, especially in Athens. Post renaissance European thought was influenced by these traditions in addition to the direct influence of ancient Germanic assemblies (Thing) such as the Anglo-Saxon Folcgemōt and the Icelandic Alþingi.
It must be remembered that in Greek democracies (or Germanic tribal assemblies), participation was restricted to male citizens. Other members of the city, or polis, such as women, slaves etc. were not allowed to participate. Indeed the participation of women in democracies dates back only a few generations from the present.
The American Founding Fathers found their inspiration and ideas at the intersection of Greek and roman republican tradition with Germanic traditions of assembly and individual freedoms. The signing of the Magna Carta charter in 1215 C.E. is a signal event in the formalization of protection of personal liberties from an arbitrary sovereign, and can be seen as rooted in ancient Anglo-Saxon tribal tradition while at the same time forming the basis for the growth of constitutional democracy in England and the United States. So the growth of liberal democracy in the west can be seen as rooted in tribal traditions, informed by ancient Greek democracy and Roman republicanism, and fostered in the atmosphere of the Renaissance and the Reformation.
In the Indian context, History Professor Steve Muhlberger at Nipissing University has painstakingly shown several evidences of republic forms of government in ancient India. And, according to Professor Arvind Sharma, republicanism was as prominent a form of government as monarchy in the sixth century B.C.E. in India.
The Indian Context
In the Indian context the earliest traditions in this regard date further back and are found in the references to “Sabha” and “Samiti” in the Vedas. These were names of assemblies during the Vedic period. There are indications that the Sabha might have been more of an administrative and judicial body which checked and bridled the power of the king while the Samiti might have served as an electoral college for electing the King (Rajan). The importance of these two bodies in those early times from the dawn of Indic civilization can be seen from the fact that they are deified as the daughters of Prajapati. Even more numerous are references to an assembly known as “Vidatha”. This seems to have been a larger assembly; it might have been a broader tribal or village assembly similar to, but much more ancient, than the tribal assemblies of the Germanic tribes. One key difference of the Vidatha from the Greek and Germanic assemblies familiar to the western tradition is that women seem to have played a key role in the deliberations of the Vidatha.
The extensive remains of the Indus- Sarasvati civilization do not offer any concrete evidence of despotic kings, with no obvious signs of extensive palace complexes and elaborate funerary monuments centered around a kingly (or queenly) figure.
In the historical period of about 2500 years ago, around the time of the rise of Magadha and the life of the Buddha, there are records of several states that are ruled by assemblies. These were commonly classified as “gana-sangha” or” gana-rajya”. Gana are refereed to dozens of times in the Rig-Veda indicating their antiquity even relative to the time of the Buddha.
There are numerous accounts of the theses states in the literature of that time ranging from grammatical works such as Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, books on statecraft such as the Arthashastra to the Puranas and numerous Buddhist (The Pali Canon. for instance: Maha-parinibbana-suttanta, the Mahavagga, and the Kullavagga) and Jain works. Panini, the famous grammarian assigned to the fourth century B.C.E., if not earlier, attests to Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra republics. We also have numerous accounts of Greek and Roman historians following the invasion of Alexander the great. Alexander had to defeat both a Brahmana and a Shudra republic in the course of his conquest. Diodorus Siculus, who wrote his universal history 200 years ago, explicitly says about North-west India: “most of the cities adopted the democratic form of government, though some retained the kingly until the invasion of the country by Alexander”
The composition of these assemblies varied. The sources give us assemblies ranging from more than a hundred thousand to a few thousand. These assemblies seem to have been restricted only to me, and possibly men who were part of a certain strata in society. The modes of decision making in these assemblies in not clear and it is not clear if there was a formal vote based system that affirmed an assembly’s decision. Given the number of states that were ruled this way and the long historical periods over which they were extent, there was likely a large diversity in their constitution and function. This type of diversity generally serves as a fecund ground for further evolution of institutions and thought.
Republicanism, in the form of the operation of guild-laws, common law, regional practices, etc. survived throughout, countenanced by the kings. The Rajatarangini, a historical narrative of Kashmir, informs us of cases in which the king’s decisions were blocked and even reversed by the king’s council. Rudradaman (c.150 C.E.) had to spend money from his privy purse to carry out repairs at Lake Sudarshana in Saurashtra because his council would not let him use public funds for the purpose. In addition, it is also often believed that modernity ended centuries of theocracy. But, at least within the Hindu culture, theocracy was shunned millennia ago when Brahmans and Kshatriyas were assigned separate roles as religious and political leaders. We don’t have a single incidence from Indian political history where a religious leader was made the king or vice versa.
Numerous other self-governing bodies were part of the social, economic, commercial and religious fabric. Merchant guilds were politically and socially powerful in India for a long period of time. We know of powerful guilds from the time of the Buddha to the time of the second Chola Empire more than 1500 years later. The Srenis during the time of the Buddha more than 2500 years ago were very influential and played a significant part in the power equations of the era, and the Arthasastra devotes considerable space to them. 1500 years later the Merchant Guilds of South India dominated commerce in the Indian Ocean. These guilds, village sabhas, religious sanghas and other self-governing bodies seem to have played a major role in administering society. Great conquering kings and emperors, such as the Mauryas, the Guptas, or the Cholas seem to have left these institutions intact as indeed they often left the sovereign of the conquered state intact as in return for recognition of suzerainty. This allowed a great continuity in ancient Indian way of life that very often survived the fall of a dynasty or an empire through these institutions.
To end, quoting Diodorus Siculus again: "Of several remarkable customs existing among the Indians, there is one prescribed by their ancient philosophers which one may regard as truly admirable: for the law ordains that no one among them shall, under any circumstances, be a slave, but that, enjoying freedom, they shall respect the principle of equality in all persons: for those, they thought, who have learned neither to domineer over nor to cringe to others will attain the life best adapted for all vicissitudes of lot: since it is silly to make laws on the basis of equality of all persons and yet to establish inequalities in social intercourse."
Uthiramerur, which is a small town today, is located close to Kanchipuram and is the site of several old and important Hindu temples, namely the Sundara Varadaraja Perumal temple, The Vaikuntaperumal temple, the Subramanya temple and the Kailasanatha temple. These temples witnessed contributions from several dynasties over the years from the Pallavas and the Cholas to the Vijayanagara Empire. The Vaikuntaperumal temple used to sever as the village Sabha and has inscriptions, from about 920 C.E., providing administrative and legal details including the criteria outlining an electoral system. These inscriptions are outstanding in the amount of detail that is conveyed about various administrative bodies, their functions, their constitution via election, eligibility for election, rules for the election, reasons for disqualification etc.
Thus we have a glimpse of an empowered and well-structured local body with important responsibilities, oriented towards public welfare, and elected by the public. There are several other temples with inscriptions relating to such bodies and their election, but the Uthiramerur inscriptions with their detail, provide a great amount of information about them.
Dr. R. Nagaswamy, the former Director of the Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology, has written a book about Uthiramerur in which he discusses these rules, and guidelines in detail.
The 2 assemblies whose constitutions are inscribed on to the temple walls were the Sabha and Ur. The Sabha was a select assembly mostly composed of the resident Brahmins, Uthiramerur having been established as a Brahmin settlement, and Ur was a broader and more general assembly. The rough parallels to the ancient Vedic institutions of Sabha, Samiti and Vidatha can be discerned.
Thus it seems that democratic traditions in India followed their own path of independent evolution from the earliest recorded days of Human history. The republican states themselves seem to be falling out of vogue by about 600-700 C.E. But as can be seen by the inscriptions at Uthiramerur and elsewhere, and by the inscriptions left by important merchant guilds etc., the local administrative institutions that formed the administrative structure of society were still thriving.
It is interesting that a few centuries after these inscriptions; South India was devastated by the armies of Alauddin-Khalji led by his slave-general Malik Kafur in 1308-1311 C.E. This was the first of 3 in about 15 years. These invasions destroyed the established polities of the south, and destroyed many of the temples that served as centers for many such institutions. The 5 great dynasties in the South with their traditions of administration and institutions were extinguished. The great temples at Madurai and Srirangam were thoroughly looted and mostly destroyed, and the cities were ransacked. Amir Khusrou, Khalji’s court historian, provides details of the staggering amount of wealth that was seized. A later invasion in 1327 C.E. by the Delhi Sultanate is said to have slaughtered 13000 devotees at the Srirangam temple alone; the loss of knowledgeable administrators in massacres of this scale would have been devastating. The later Vijayanagara Empire, which rose out of the ruins of the South, did much to reconquer, rebuild and reestablish much that was destroyed. But the scale of the devastation is probably a very definite break in continuity that would be very challenging to tide over.
It is difficult to know what an organic evolution of these traditions might have led to since their evolution was interrupted by the loss of political sovereignty to political traditions from outside the subcontinent. This time from the earliest invasions of the Islamized Turks and establishment of the Delhi Sultanate, and the traumatic conquest unleashed by it, probably mark the beginning of a new phase in Indian political thought. Rather than evolving in practice, most Indic political thought from this period is in the form of commentaries on earlier works. While the rise of the Vijayanagara and later the Maratha empires offered some respite and provided scope for such traditions to be rekindled during the fraught period of their embattled existence, the organic evolution of these institutions were probably interrupted in such that they could not revived in the same way.
1. Arvind Sharma, Ten Misconceptions About India and Indic Traditions (Education About Asia, Vol. 6:3, Winter 2001)
2. Steven Muhlberger, Democracy in Ancient India, http://www.nipissingu.ca/department/history/muhlberger/histdem/indiadem.htm
3. Hemachandra Raychaudhuri, Political History of Ancient India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 85 ff.
4. R. C. Majumdar, The Classical Accounts of India (Calcutta: Firma K.L.M. Private Ltd., 1981), pp. 5-92.
5. V. S. Agrawala, India as Known to Panini (Varanasi: Prithvi Prakashan, 1963), p. 52, 437.
6. A. L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1967), p. 99