Democracy in Ancient India


Trichinopoly, 19th c.

May 25, 2012 — ONTARIO, CANADA (SUN) — A three-part study of democratic practices and the concept of shared governance in ancient India.

Historians who are interested in democracy often insist it must be understood in context of a unique western tradition of political development beginning with the Greeks. The spread of democratic ideals and practice to other cultures, or their failure to spread, have many times been explained on the assumption that democracy or personal liberty are ideals foreign to the non-Western world -- an assumption at least as old as Herodotus.[1] But events since the late 1980s have shown that people both in "Western" and "non-Western" countries have a lively interest in democracy as something relevant to their own situation. The old assumption deserves to be re-examined.

In fact, the supposed differences between "Western" and "non-Western" cultures are in this case, as in so many others, more a matter of ideological faith than of cool, impartial judgment. If we are talking about the history of humanity as a whole, democracy is equally new or equally old everywhere. Fair and effective elections, under adult suffrage and in conditions that allow the free discussion of ideas, are a phenomenon of this century. The history of democracy, properly so called, is just beginning.

The "prehistory" of democracy, however, is scarcely restricted to Europe and Europeanized America and Australasia. A search of world history finds much worth studying. There are no perfect democracies waiting to be discovered, but there is something else: a long history of "government by discussion," in which groups of people having common interests make decisions that affect their lives through debate, consultation, and voting. The vast majority of such groups, it may be objected, are more properly called oligarchies than democracies. But every democracy has been created by widening what was originally a very narrow franchise. The history of government by discussion, which may be called republicanism for brevity's sake, has a claim to the interest of anyone who takes democracy seriously.[2]

This article will examine one important case of government by discussion -- the republics of Ancient India. Although they are familiar to Indologists, these republics are hardly known to other historians. They deserve, however, a substantial place in world historiography. The experience of Ancient India with republicanism, if better known, would by itself make democracy seem less of a freakish development, and help dispel the common idea that the very concept of democracy is specifically "Western."

The present article has two goals. First, it will summarize the history of the ancient Indian republics as it is currently known. This survey is restricted to North India and the period before about 400 A.D., when sovereign republics seem to have become extinct.

Second, the article will examine the historiographical evaluations of the Indian republican experience, and suggest that most of them have placed it in too narrow a context. Ancient Indian democratic experiments, it will be argued, are more important than they are usually granted to be. It is well known that the sources of ancient Indian history present considerable difficulties. All the indigenous ancient literature from the subcontinent has been preserved as part of a religious tradition, Brahmanical, Buddhist or Jaina. When the subject is political theory and its implementation, the preselected nature of sources is a distinct handicap to the researcher. The largest and most influential Indian literary tradition, the Brahmanical, is distinctly hostile to anything resembling democracy.

Brahmanical literature gives kingship a central place in political life, and seldom hints that anything else is possible. For moral philosophers and legislators such as Manu (reputed author of the Manu-Smrti between 200 B.C.-A.D. 200), the king was a key figure in a social order based on caste (varna ). Caste divided society into functional classes: the Brahmans had magical powers and priestly duties, the ksatriyas were the rulers and warriors, the vaisyas cultivators, and the sudras the lowest part of society, subservient to the other three. Moral law or dharma depended on the observance of these divisions, and the king was the guarantor of dharma, and in particular the privileges of the Brahmans. [3] Another tradition is best exemplified by the Arthasastra of Kautilya (c. 300 B.C.), which allotted the king a more independent role but likewise emphasized his responsibility for peace, justice and stability.[4]

Both Kautilya's work and the Manu-Smrti are considered classic expressions of ancient Indian political and social theory. A reader of these or other Brahmanical treatises finds it very easy to visualize ancient Indian society as one where "monarchy was the normal form of the state." [5]

Until the end of the last century, the only indication that this might not always have been the case came from Greek and Roman accounts of India, mostly histories of India during and just after Alexander the Great's invasion of India in 327-324 B.C. These works spoke of numerous cities and even larger areas being governed as oligarchies and democracies, but they were not always believed by scholars.[6] Yet research into the Buddhist Pali Canon during the nineteenth century confirmed this picture of widespread republicanism.

The Pali Canon is the earliest version of the Buddhist scriptures, and reached its final form between 400-300 B.C.[7] It contains the story of Buddha's life and teaching and his rules for monastic communities. The rules and teachings are presented in the form of anecdotes, explaining the circumstances that called forth the Buddha's authoritative pronouncement. Thus the Pali Canon provides us with many details of life in ancient India, and specifically of the sixth century (the Buddha's lifetime) in the northeast.

In 1903, T.W. Rhys Davids, the leading Pali scholar, pointed out in his book Buddhist India [8] that the Canon (and the Jatakas, a series of Buddhist legends set in the same period but composed much later) depicted a country in which there were many clans, dominating extensive and populous territories, who made their public decisions in assemblies, moots, or parliaments.

Rhys Davids' observation was not made in a vacuum. Throughout the nineteenth century, students of local government in India (many of them British bureaucrats) had been fascinated by popular elements in village life.[9] The analysis of village government was part of a continuous debate on the goals and methods of imperial policy, and the future of India as a self-governing country. Rhys-Davids' book made the ancient institutions of India relevant to this debate. His reconstruction of a republican past for India was taken up by nationalistic Indian scholars of the 1910s.[10] Later generations of Indian scholars have been somewhat embarrassed by the enthusiasm of their elders for early republics and have sought to treat the republics in a more balanced and dispassionate manner.[11] Nevertheless, their work, like that of the pioneering nationalists, has been extremely productive. Not only the classical sources and the Pali Canon, but also Buddhist works in Sanskrit, Panini's Sanskrit grammar (the Astadhyayi), the Mahabharata, the Jaina Canon, and even Kautilya's Arthasastra have been combed for evidence and insights. Coins and inscriptions have documented the existence of republics and the workings of popular assemblies.

The work of twentieth century scholars has made possible a much different view of ancient political life in India. It has shown us a landscape with kings a-plenty, a culture where the terminology of rule is in the majority of sources relentlessly monarchical, but where, at the same time, the realities of politics are so complex that simply to call them "monarchical" is a grave distortion. Indeed, in ancient India, monarchical thinking was constantly battling with another vision, of self-rule by members of a guild, a village, or an extended kin-group, in other words, any group of equals with a common set of interests. This vision of cooperative self-government often produced republicanism and even democracy comparable to classical Greek democracy.

Though evidence for non-monarchical government goes back to the Vedas, [12] republican polities were most common and vigorous in the Buddhist period, 600 B.C.-A.D. 200. At this time, India was in the throes of urbanization. The Pali Canon gives a picturesque description of the city of Vesali in the fifth century B.C. as possessing 7,707 storied buildings, 7,707 pinnacled buildings, 7,707 parks and lotus ponds, and a multitude of people, including the famous courtesan Ambapali, whose beauty and artistic achievements contributed mightily to the city's prosperity and reputation.

The cities of Kapilavatthu and Kusavati were likewise full of traffic and noise.[13] Moving between these cities were great trading caravans of 500 or 1,000 carts -- figures that convey no precise measurement, but give a true feeling of scale: caravans that stopped for more than four months in a single place, as they often did because of the rainy season, were described as villages.[14] Religion, too, was taking to the road. The hereditary Brahman who was also a householder, as in later Vedic tradition, saw his teachings, authority and perquisites threatened by wandering holy men and self-appointed teachers.[15]

There were warlord-kings who sought to control this fluid society, some with a measure of success. But the literature, Pali and Sanskrit, Buddhist and Brahmanical, shows that non-monarchical forms of government were omnipresent. There was a complex vocabulary to describe the different types of groups that ran their own affairs.[16] Some of these were obviously warrior bands; [17] others more peaceful groups with economic goals; some religious brotherhoods. Such an organization, of whatever type, could be designated, almost indifferently, as a gana or a sangha; and similar though less important bodies were labeled with the terms sreni, puga, or vrata. Gana and sangha, the most important of these terms, originally meant "multitude." By the sixth century B.C., these words meant both a self-governing multitude, in which decisions were made by the members working in common, and the style of government characteristic of such groups. In the case of the strongest of such groups, which acted as sovereign governments, the words are best translated as "republic."


In referring to classical sources, I have usually not given full citations to the editions, on the assumption that specialists will know how to find them, but that general readers will be more interested in the translations. Also, references to Indian primary materials will be made to English translations (where available). Nearly all the secondary literature on the topic is in English.

1. See for example Herodotus, The Histories 7. 135, trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt, rev. ed. (Harmondsworth, 1972), p. 485: the famous reply of the Spartan emissaries to the Persian general Hydarnes. Back to text.

2. For more on this, see Steven Muhlberger and Phil Paine, "Democracy's Place in World History," Journal of World History 4 (1993): 23-45 and the World History of Democracy site, especially Chapter Two -- Democracy at the Basic Level: Government by consent in small communities. Back to text.

3. A.S. Altekar, State and Government in Ancient India, 3rd edn. rev. and enlarged (Delhi, 1958; first ed. 1949), p. 1; the Manu-Smrti translated by G. Bühler as The Laws of Manu, vol. 25 of Sacred Books of the East, hereafter SBE] ed. F. Max Müller (Oxford, 1886). Back to text.

4. Kautilya's Arthasastra, trans. by R. Shamasastry, 4th ed. (Mysore, 1951; first ed. 1915). Back to text.

5. Altekar, State and Government in Ancient India, p. 1 (hereafter State and Government ); but see the same work, p. 109, where the statement is qualified as a prelude to discussing republics. Back to text.

6. Altekar, State and Government, pp. 110-111; K.P. Jayaswal, Hindu Polity: A Constitutional History of India in Hindu Times, 2nd. and enl. ed. (Bangalore, 1943), p. 58. Back to text.

7. An introduction to the Pali Canon may be found in R.C. Majumdar, The History and Culture of the Indian People, vol. 2, The Age of Imperial Unity, (Bombay, 1951), pp. 396-411. Back to text.

8. (London, 1903). Back to text.

9. See, for instance, Sir Henry Sumner Maine, Village Communities in the East and West (1889; reprint edn. New York, 1974). Back to text.

10. K.P. Jayaswal, Hindu Polity: A Constitutional History of India in Hindu Times 2nd and enl. edn. (Bangalore, 1943), published first in article form in 1911-13; D.R. Bhandarkar, Lectures on the Ancient History of India on the Period form 650 to 325 B.C., The Carmichael Lectures, 1918 (Calcutta, 1919); R.C. Majumdar. Corporate Life in Ancient India, (orig. written in 1918; cited here from the 3rd ed., Calcutta, 1969, as Corporate Life). Back to text.

11. E.g. Altekar (n. 6); J.P. Sharma, Republics in Ancient India, c. 1500 B.C.-500 B.C. (Leiden, 1968) [hereafter Republics]; U.N. Ghoshal, A History of Indian Public Life, vol. 2, The Pre-Maurya and Maurya Period (Oxford, 1966). For the embarrassment, see Sharma, Republics, pp. 2-3. Back to text.

12. Sharma, Republics, pp. 15-62, 237. Back to text.

13. Narendra Wagle, Society at the Time of the Buddha (Bombay: 1966), pp. 27-28. Back to text.

14. Wagle, Society at the Time of the Buddha, pp. 147-148. Back to text.

15. Sukumar Dutt, Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India (London, 1957), pp. 35-44. Back to text.

16. V.S. Agrawala, India as Known to Panini: A study of the cultural material in the Ashatadhyayi, 2nd edn. rev. and enl. (Varanasi, 1963), pp. 426-444 [hereafter, Panini]; Sharma, Republics, pp. 8-14. A.K. Majumdar, Concise History of Ancient History, vol. 2: Political Theory, Administration, and Economic Life (New Delhi, 1980), p. 131 [hereafter, Concise History]. Back to text.

17. It is often assumed in the literature that mercenary bands or wild tribes must be clearly distinguished from true political communities. A reading of Xenophon's Anabasis (trans. by W.H.D. Rouse as The March Up Country (New York and East Lansing, 1959)) would give food for thought about this distinction. The army Xenophon was part of and led for a time is perhaps the best documented example of the day-to-day political life of a Greek community that we have. Back to text.

Steve Muhlberger is a professor of History at Nipissing University.


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