Democracy in Ancient India, Part 2


Jul 22, ONTARIO, CANADA (SUN) — A three-part study of democratic practices and the concept of shared governance in ancient India.

That there were many sovereign republics in India is easily demonstrated from a number of sources. Perhaps it is best to begin with the Greek evidence, even though it is not the earliest, simply because the Greek writers spoke in a political language that is familiar.

Perhaps the most useful Greek account of India is Arrian's Anabasis of Alexander , which describes the Macedonian conqueror's campaigns in great detail. The Anabasis, which is derived from the eyewitness accounts of Alexander's companions, [18] portrays him as meeting "free and independent" Indian communities at every turn. What "free and independent" meant is illustrated from the case of Nysa, a city on the border of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan that was ruled by a president named Aculphis and a council of 300. After surrendering to Alexander, Aculphis used the city's supposed connection with the god Dionysus to seek lenient terms from the king:

"The Nysaeans beseech thee, O king out of respect for Dionysus, to allow them to remain free and independent; for when Dionysus had subjugated the nation of the Indians...he founded this city from the soldiers who had become unfit for military service ...From that time we inhabit Nysa, a free city, and we ourselves are independent, conducting our government with constitutional order." [19]

Nysa was in Greek terms an oligarchy, as further discussion between Alexander and Aculphis reveals, and a single-city state. There were other Indian states that were both larger in area and wider in franchise. It is clear from Arrian that the Mallian republic consisted of a number of cities.[20] Q. Curtius Rufus and Diodorus Siculus in their histories of Alexander mention a people called the Sabarcae or Sambastai among whom "the form of government was democratic and not regal." [21] The Sabarcae/Sambastai, like the Mallians, had a large state. Their army consisted of 60,000 foot, 6000 cavalry, and 500 chariots.[22] Thus Indian republics of the late fourth century could be much larger than the contemporaneous Greek polis . And it seems that in the northwestern part of India, republicanism was the norm. Alexander's historians mention a large number of republics, some named, some not, but only a handful of kings.[23] The prevalence of republicanism and its democratic form is explicitly stated by Diodorus Siculus. After describing the mythical monarchs who succeeded the god Dionysus as rulers of India, he says:

At last, however, after many years had gone, most of the cities adopted the democratic form of government, though some retained the kingly until the invasion of the country by Alexander.[24]

What makes this statement particularly interesting is that it seems to derive from a first-hand description of India by a Greek traveler named Megasthenes. Around 300 B.C., about two decades after Alexander's invasion, Megasthenes served as ambassador of the Greek king Seleucus Nicator to the Indian emperor Chandragupta Maurya, and in the course of his duties crossed northern India to the eastern city of Patna, where he lived for a while.[25] If this statement is drawn from Megasthenes, then the picture of a northwestern India dominated by republics must be extended to the entire northern half of the subcontinent.[26]

If we turn to the Indian sources, we find that there is nothing far-fetched about this idea. The most useful sources for mapping north India are three: The Pali Canon, which shows us northeastern India between the Himalayas and the Ganges in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.; the grammar of Panini, which discusses all of North India, with a focus on the northwest, during the fifth century; and Kautilya's Arthasastra, which is a product of the fourth century, roughly contemporaneous with Megasthenes. All three sources enable us to identify numerous sanghas and ganas, some very minor, others large and powerful.[27]

What were these republican polities like? According to Panini, all the states and regions (janapadas ) of northern India during his time were based on the settlement or conquest of a given area by an identifiable warrior people who still dominated the political life of that area. Some of these peoples (in Panini's terms janapadins) were subject to a king, who was at least in theory of their own blood and was perhaps dependent on their special support.[28] Elsewhere, the janapadins ran their affairs in a republican manner. Thus in both kinds of state, the government was dominated by people classified as ksatriyas, or, as later ages would put it, members of the warrior caste.

But in many states, perhaps most, political participation was restricted to a subset of all the ksatriyas. One needed to be not just a warrior, but a member of a specific royal clan, the rajanya.[29] Evidence from a number of sources shows that the enfranchised members of many republics, including the Buddha's own Sakyas and the Licchavis with whom he was very familiar, considered themselves to be of royal descent, even brother-kings. The term raja, which in a monarchy certainly meant king, in a state with gana or sangha constitution could designate someone who held a share in sovereignty. In such places, it seems likely that political power was restricted to the heads of a restricted number of "royal families" (rajakulas) among the ruling clans. The heads of these families were consecrated as kings, and thereafter took part in deliberations of state.

Our Indian republics are beginning to sound extremely undemocratic by our modern standards, with real power concentrated in the hands of a few patriarchs representing the leading lineages of one privileged section of the warrior caste. A reader who has formed this impression is not entirely mistaken. No doubt the rulers of most republics thought of their gana as a closed club -- as did the citizens of Athens, who also defined themselves as a hereditarily privileged group. But, as in ancient Athens, there are other factors which modify the picture, and make it an interesting one for students of democracy.

First, the closed nature of the ruling class is easy to exaggerate. Republics where only descendants of certain families held power were common; but there was another type in which power was shared by all ksatriya families.[31] This may not sound like much of a difference, since the restriction to the warrior caste seems to remain. But this is an anachronistic view of the social conditions of the time. The varnas of pre-Christian-era India were not the castes of later periods, with their prohibitions on intermarriage and commensality with other groups.[32] Rather, they were the constructs of theorists, much like the division of three orders (priests, warriors and workers) beloved by European writers of the Early Middle Ages.[33] Such a classification was useful for debating purposes, but was not a fact of daily existence. Those republics that threw open the political process to all ksatriyas were not extending the franchise from one clearly defined group to another, albeit a larger one, but to all those who could claim, and justify the claim, to be capable of ruling and fighting.

Other evidence suggests that in some states the enfranchised group was even wider. Such a development is hinted at in Kautilya: according to him, there were two kinds of janapadas, ayudhiya-praya, those made up mostly of soldiers, and sreni-praya , those comprising guilds of craftsmen, traders, and agriculturalists.[34] The first were political entities where military tradition alone defined those worthy of power, while the second would seem to be communities where wealth derived from peaceful economic activity gave some access to the political process. This interpretation is supported by the fact that sreni or guilds based on an economic interest were often both part of the armed force of a state and recognized as having jurisdiction over their own members.[35] In the Indian republics, as in the Greek poleis or the European cities of the High Middle Ages, economic expansion enabled new groups to take up arms and eventually demand a share in sovereignty.[36] If it was not granted, one could always form one's own mini-state.

Panini's picture of stable, long-established janapadas is certainly the illusion of a systematizing grammarian. As Panini's most thorough modern student has put it, there was "a craze for constituting new republics" which "had reached its climax in the Vahika country and north-west India where clans constituting of as many as one hundred families only organized themselves as Ganas."[37] Furthermore, power in some republics was vested in a large number of individuals. In a well-known Jataka tale we are told that in the Licchavi capital of Vesali, there were 7707 kings (rajas), 7707 viceroys, 7707 generals, and 7707 treasurers.[38] These figures, since they come from about half a millenium after the period they describe, have little evidentiary value, despite the ingenious efforts of scholars to find a core of hard fact. The tale does not give us the number of Licchavi ruling families (rajakulas), the size of the Licchavi assembly, or any real clues as to the population of Vesali.[39] Yet the Jataka does retain the memory of an undisputed feature of Indian republicanism: the rulers were many.[40] The same memory can be found in other sources, especially in those critical of republicanism. The Lalitavistara, in an obvious satirical jab, depicts Vesali as being full of Licchavi rajans, each one thinking, "I am king, I am king," and thus a place where piety, age and rank were ignored.[41] The Santi Parva section of the Mahabharata shows the participation of too many people in the affairs of state as being a great flaw in the republican polity:

The gana leaders should be respected as the worldly affairs (of the ganas) depend to a great extent upon them...the spy (department) and the secrecy of counsel (should be left) to the chiefs, for it is not fit that the entire body of the gana should hear those secret matters. The chiefs of gana should carry out together, in secret, works leading to the prosperity of the gana, otherwise the wealth of the gana decays and it meets with danger.[42]

A Jaina work again criticizes ganas for being disorderly: the monks and nuns who frequent them will find themselves bullied, beaten, robbed, or accused of being spies.[43]

The numerous members of a sovereign gana or sangha interacted with each other as members of an assembly. Details of the working of such assemblies can be found both in Brahmanical and Buddhist literature. By the time of Panini (fifth century B.C.), there was a terminology for the process of corporate decision-making. Panini gives us the terms for vote, decisions reached by voting, and the completion of a quorum. Another cluster of words indicates that the division of assemblies into political parties was well known. Further, Panini and his commentators show that sometimes a smaller select group within a sangha had special functions -- acting as an executive, or perhaps as a committees for defined purposes.[44]

The Pali Canon gives a much fuller, if somewhat indirect, depiction of democratic institutions in India, confirming and extending the picture found in Panini. This is found in three of the earliest and most revered parts of the canon, the Maha-parinibbana-suttanta, the Mahavagga, and the Kullavagga.[45] These works, taken together, preserve the Buddha's instructions for the proper running of the Buddhist monastic brotherhood -- the sangha -- after his death. They are the best source for voting procedures in a corporate body in the earliest part of the Buddhist period. They also give some insight into the development of democratic ideology.

The rules for conducting the Buddhist sangha were, according to the first chapter of the Maha-parinibbana-suttanta, based in principle on those commonly found in political sanghas or ganas. In the case of the Buddhist sangha, the key organizational virtue was the full participation of all the monks in the ritual and disciplinary acts of their group. To assure that this would be remembered, detailed rules concerning the voting in monastic assemblies, their membership, and their quorums, were set down in the Mahavagga and the Kullavagga.

Business could only be transacted legitimately in a full assembly, by a vote of all the members. If, for example, a candidate wanted the upasampada ordination, the question (˝atti) was put to the sangha by a learned and competent member, and the other members asked three times to indicate dissent. If there was none, the sangha was taken to be in agreement with the ˝atti. The decision was finalized by the proclamation of the decision of the sangha.[46]

In many cases, as in the granting of upasampada ordination, unanimity of a full assembly was required.[47] Of course, unanimity was not always possible. The Kullavagga provides other techniques that were used in disputes especially dangerous to the unity of the sangha, those which concerned interpretation of the monastic rule itself. If such a dispute had degenerated into bitter and confused debate, it could be decided by majority vote, or referred to a jury or committee specially elected by the sangha to treat the matter at hand.[48]

It is here that we see a curious combination of well-developed democratic procedure and fear of democracy. The rules for taking votes sanctioned the disallowance by the vote-taker of results that threatened the essential law of the sangha or its unity.[49] Yet, if the voting procedure is less than free, the idea that only a free vote could decide contentious issues is strongly present. No decision could be made until some semblance of agreement had been reached.[50] Such manipulations of voting were introduced because Buddhist elders were very concerned about the survival of the religious enterprise: disunity of the membership was the great fear of all Indian republics and corporations.[51] Yet the idea of a free vote could not be repudiated. The Kullavagga illustrates a conflict within the Buddhist sangha during its earliest centuries between democratic principles and a philosophy that was willing in the name of unity to sacrifice them.

Since the rules of the Buddhist sangha are by far the best known from the period we have been discussing, it is tempting to identify them with the rules of political ganas, particularly those of the Licchavis (or Vajjians), since the Buddha made a clear connection between the principles applicable to the Licchavi polity and those of his sangha.[52] But from early on, scholars have recognized that the Buddhist constitution was not an exact imitation of any other: for instance, sovereign republics had a small, elected executive committee to manage the affairs of the gana when the whole membership of the gana was unable to be assembled.[53] But neither did the Buddha or his earliest followers invent their complex and carefully formulated parliamentary procedures out of whole cloth. R.C. Majumdar's conclusion, first formulated in 1918, still seems valid: the techniques seen in the Buddhist sangha reflect a sophisticated and widespread political culture based on the popular assembly.[54]

Similarly, the value placed on full participation of members in the affairs of their sangha must reflect the ideology of those who believed in the sangha-gana form of government in the political sphere. The Buddha's commitment to republicanism (or at least the ideal republican virtues) was a strong one, if we are to believe the Maha-parinibbana-suttanta, among the oldest of Buddhist texts.[55] As is common in the Buddhist scriptures, a precept is illustrated by a story. Here Ajatasastru, the King of Maghada, wishes to destroy the Vajjian confederacy (here = the Licchavis) [56] and sends a minister, Vassakara the Brahman, to the Buddha to ask his advice. Will his attack be a success? Rather than answer directly, the Buddha speaks to Ananda, his closest disciples:

"Have you heard, Ananda, that the Vajjians hold full and frequent public assemblies?"

"Lord, so I have heard," replied he.

"So long, Ananda," rejoined the Blessed One, "as the Vajjians hold these full and frequent public assemblies; so long may they be expected not to decline, but to prosper...

In a series of rhetorical questions to Ananda, the Buddha outlines other requirements for Vajjian prosperity:

"So long, Ananda, as the Vajjians meet together in concord, and rise in concord, and carry out their undertakings in long as they enact nothing not already established, abrogate nothing that has been already enacted, and act in accordance with the ancient institutions of the Vajjians as established in former long as they honor and esteem and revere and support the Vajjian elders, and hold it a point of duty to hearken to their long as no women or girls belonging to their clans are detained among them by force or long as they honor and esteem and revere and support the Vajjian shrines in town or country, and allow not the proper offerings and rites, as formerly given and performed, to fall into long as the rightful protection, defense, and support shall be fully provided for the Arahats among them, so that Arahats from a distance may enter the realm, and the Arahats therein may live at ease -- so long may the Vajjians be expected not to decline, but to prosper."

Then the Blessed One addressed Vassakara the Brahman, and said, "When I was once staying, O Brahman, at Vesali at the Sarandada Temple, I taught the Vajjians these conditions of welfare; and so long as those conditions shall continue to exist among the Vajjians, so long as the Vajjians shall be well instructed in those conditions, so long may we expect them not to decline, but to prosper."

The comment of the king's ambassador underlines the point of this advice: "So, Gotama, the Vajjians cannot be overcome by the king of Magadha; that is, not in battle, without diplomacy or breaking up their alliance."

The same story tells us that once the king's envoy had departed, the Buddha and Ananda went to meet the assembly of monks. Buddha told the monks that they too must observe seven conditions if they were to prosper: Full and frequent assemblies, concord, preserving and not abrogating established institutions, honoring elders, falling "not under the influence of that craving which, springing up within them, would give rise to renewed existence," delighting in a life of solitude, and training "their minds that good and holy men shall come to them, and those who have come shall dwell at ease." [57] These precepts, and others that follow in sets of seven, were the main point for the monks who have transmitted the Maha-parinibbana-suttanta to us. We, however, may wish to emphasize another point: the Buddha saw the virtues necessary for a righteous and prosperous community, whether secular or monastic, as being much the same. Foremost among those virtues was the holding of "full and frequent assemblies." In this, the Buddha spoke not only for himself, and not only out of his personal view of justice and virtue. He based himself on what may be called the democratic tradition in ancient Indian politics -- democratic in that it argued for a wide rather than narrow distribution of political rights, and government by discussion rather than by command and submission.[58]


18. See "Arrianus, Flavius" Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1970), pp. 122-123.

19. Arrian 5.1-2; all translations from the Greek sources are taken from R.C. Majumdar's compilation, The Classical Accounts of India (Calcutta, 1960) [hereafter Classical Accounts] -- in this case, p. 20. However, those who don't have access to that handy work can find these authors, whose books are all well-known classical works, in standard editions and translations.

20. Arrian, 5.22, 5.25-6.14, Classical Accounts, pp. 47, 64-75.

21. Q. Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander the Great 9.8, Classical Accounts, p. 151; Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica 17.104, Classical Accounts, p. 180.

22. Ibid.

23. Altekar, State and Government, p. 111.

24. Diodorus Siculus 2.39, Classical Accounts, p. 236; cf. Arrian's Indika 9, Classical Accounts, p. 223, which seems to derive from the same source, i.e. Megasthenes, for whom see below.

25. Otto Stein, "Megasthenes (2)," Real-Encyclopńdie der classischen Altertumwissenschaft, ed. A. von Pauly, G. Wissowa, et. al. (Stuttgart, 1893-) vol. 15, pt. 1, col. 232-3.

26. R.C. Majumdar, Classical Accounts, Appendix I, pp. 461-473, throws doubt on the authority of this whole section of Diodorus (2.35-42, called "the Epitome of Megasthenes,"), but classicists do not share his doubts, though they grant that the original material may have been handled roughly by later epitomizers. See Otto Stein, "Megasthenes (2)," col. 255; Barbara C.J. Timmer, Megasthenes en de Indische Maatschaapij (Amsterdam, 1930); Diodorus of Sicily, trans. by C.H. Oldfather Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1935), vol. 2, p. vii.

27. Kautilya, 11.1; Agrawala, Panini, pp. 445-457; see the short history of known republics in Altekar, State and Government pp. 118-123. See Joseph E. Schwartzenberg, ed., A Historical Atlas of South Asia (Chicago and London, 1978), p. 16 (Plate III.B.2).

28. Agrawala, Panini, pp. 426-428; Benoychandra Sen, Studies in the Buddhist Jatakas: Tradition and Polity (Calcutta, 1974), pp. 157-159.

29. Agrawala, Panini, pp. 430-432.

30. Altekar, State and Government, p. 135; Sharma, Republics, pp. 12-13, 99-108, 112, 175-176.

31. Altekar, State and Government, p. 114.

32. Wagle, Society at the Time of the Buddha, pp. 132-33, 156-158.

33. Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, tr. Victor Goldhammer (Chicago, 1980); Jacques Le Goff, "Labor, Techniques and Craftsmen in the Value Systems of the Early Middle Ages (Fifth to Tenth Centuries)," in Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, tr. Victor Goldhammer (Chicago, 1980), pp. 71-86.

34. Agrawala, Panini, pp. 436-439. Contra, Ghoshal, A History of Indian Public Life, ii, p. 195, n. 5, who rejects Agrawala's interpretation of the evidence in Panini and Kautilya, and insists on a strict (but anachronistic) division between political, military, and social and economic groups. A fair reading of Kautilya shows that "corporations" of whatever sort could be important political and military factors, whether they were sovereign or not, and whether they "lived by the name of raja" (Kautilya, 11.1, tr. Shamasastry, p. 407) or not.

35. See esp. R.C. Majumdar, Corporate Life, pp. 18-29, 60-63; Charles Drekmeier, Kingship and Community in Early India (Stanford, 1962), pp. 275-277.

36. W.G. Forrest, The Emergence of Greek Democracy, 800-400 B.C. (New York, 1966), esp. pp. 67-97; J.K. Hyde, Society and Politics in Medieval Italy: The Evolution of the Civil Life, 1000-1350, esp. 48-60, 104-118; John Hine Mundy, Liberty and Political Power in Toulouse 1050-1230 (New York, 1954).

37. Agrawala, Panini, p. 432. Again cf. Italy at the beginning of the High Middle Ages, Hyde, Society and Politics in Medieval Italy, pp. 56-57.

38. Jataka 149, trans. in The Jataka, or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births, ed. E.B. Cowell, tr. by Various Hands, 6 vols. (1895; reprint, London, 1957), 1: 316. Jataka 301 (Cowell trans., 3: 1) also mentions 7707 kings, "all of them given to argument and disputation."

39. Every scholar to approach this material has wrestled with this number, none more diligently than Sharma, Republics, pp. 99-104. It is hard to take any of them very seriously once one has examined Jataka 149 itself. Here, as in many other places, 7077 is used as a large, ideal number.

40. Similarly suggestive numbers can be found in Jataka 465 (Cowell trans., 4: 94) where 500 Licchavi kings (not necessarily the entire body of kings) are mentioned; in the Mahavastu, which refers to "twice 84,000 Licchavi rajas residing within the city of Vesali," (Sharma, Republics, p. 99; the Mahavastu is yet untranslated into a European language) and Jataka 547 (Cowell trans., 6: 266), which mentions 60,000 ksatriyas in the Ceta state, all of whom were styled rajano (Agrawala, Panini, p. 432).

41. Agrawala, Panini, p. 430; Sharma, Republics, p. 101; A.K. Majumdar, Concise History, 2: 140. No translation of the Lalitavistara into a European language was available to me.

42. Mahabharata 12.107, trans. by R.C. Majumdar, Corporate Life, 251.

43. A.K. Majumdar, Concise History, 2: 140, referring to Acharangasutra II.3.1.10. The SBE translation of the Acharangasutra (vol. 22 (1884), tr. Hermann Jacobi) of this passage entirely conceals the meaning of gana. This is typical of older translations, and some not so old (e.g. the Roy trans. of the Mahabharata, Santi Parva (Calcutta, 1962), c. 107, where Roy insists that gana here must be understood as denoting an aristocracy of wealth and blood).

44. Agrawala, Panini, pp. 433-435.

45. The Maha-parinibbana-suttanta: Buddhist Suttas vol. 1, tr. T.W. Rhys Davids, SBE 11 (1881): 1-136. Mahavagga, Kullavagga, and Pattimokkha: Vinaya Texts, tr. T.W. Rhys Davids and H. Oldenberg, SBE vol. 13, 17, 20 (1881, 1882, 1885).

46. Mahavagga 1.28, SBE 13: 169-170.

47. Note complex rules, e.g. Mahavagga 9.4.7-8, SBE 17: 217-272, establishing who has the right to vote (i.e., in such cases, to object).

48. Kullavagga 4.9-14, SBE 20: 24-65.

49. Kullavagga 4.10.1, SBE 20: 20-26, where it is stated that taking of votes is invalid "when the taker of votes [an elected official] knows that those whose opinions are not in accordance with the law will be in the majority," or "when he is in doubt whether the voting will result in a schism in the Samgha," or "when they do not vote in accordance with the view that they really hold." Kullavagga 4.14.26, SBE 20: 56-57 shows how the vote-taker was permitted to prevent the will of the majority from being enacted even in a secret vote, by throwing out the results if the winners' opinion went against the law -- or his interpretation of it.

50. See Kullavagga 4.14.25-26, SBE 20: 54-57, where the emphasis is on reconciling monks to a decision which they were opposed to. Voting is one method of doing so; manipulation of votes preserves the religious law without splitting the sangha.

51. It is commonly accepted by scholars that the regulations we have been discussing are, in the form we have them, the product of a long evolution, though all of them are attributed to the Buddha. See Rhys Davids' and Oldenberg's introduction to the Vinaya Texts, SBE 13: ix-xxxvii, and notes throughout. For the concern with disunity, see the extract from the Maha-parinibbana-suttanta (i.1) below; the Mahabharata, Santi Parva 107, and Kautilya, 11.1 (which despite their monarchist purpose, contain passages of republican thought -- see below, n. 71); Altekar, State and Government, pp. 129-130; A.K. Majumdar, Concise History, 2: 140.

52. Maha-parinibbana-suttanta 1.1, SBE 9: 6-7; see below.

53. Altekar, pp. 126-127, 132-134; Sharma, Republics, pp. 12, 110-111.

54. Corporate Life, pp. 233-234; A.K. Majumdar, Concise History, 2: 137.

55. The Maha-parinibbana-suttanta is the story of the "great decease of the Buddha" and as such includes both colorful anecdotes and important last-minute instructions to his followers.

56. The Pali Canon uses both the term Vajji (Vriji in Sanskrit) and Licchavi to designate a republican polity based at Vesali. Scholars believe that the Licchavi were the people who lived at Vesali, while Vajji was the name of a confederation that they headed. For a detailed discussion, see Sharma, Republics, pp. 81-84, 93-97.

57. Maha-parinibbana-suttanta 1.1, SBE 11: 6-7.

58. In this sense R.C. Majumdar was right in calling the Buddha "an apostle of democracy;" Corporate Life, p. 219. Contra, Drekmeier, Kingship and Community in Early India, p. 113.

Steve Muhlberger is a professor of History at Nipissing University.


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