Democracy in Ancient India, Part 3


Jul 23, ONTARIO, CANADA (SUN) — The last in a three-part study of democratic practices and the concept of shared governance in ancient India.

The Pali Canon gives us our earliest, and perhaps our best, detailed look at Indian republicanism, its workings, and its political philosophy. About no other republics do we know as much as we do about the Buddhist sangha and the Licchavis in the time of Buddha -- even though we do know that republics survived and were a significant factor until perhaps the fourth century A.D., a period of over 800 years. Scattered inscriptions, a great number of coins, and the occasional notice in Greek sources, the Jatakas or other Indian literature give us a few facts. But any history of Indian republicanism is necessarily a rather schematic one.

The theme that has most attracted the attention of scholars is the constant danger to republicanism, and its ultimate failure. Much of what we know about the sovereign ganas of India derives from stories of attacks upon them by various conquerors. Yet it is remarkable that for several centuries, the conspicuous successes of monarchs, even the greatest, had only a temporary effect on the sovereign republics and very little effect indeed on the corporate organization of guilds, religious bodies, and villages. The reason is, of course, that Indian kings have seldom been as mighty as they wished to be, or wished to be presented. Conquerors were not in a position to restructure society, to create states as we visualize them today. Rather they were usually content to gain the submission of their neighbors, whether they were other kings or republics.[59[ These defeated rivals were often left in control of their own affairs, merely required to pay tribute and provide troops for the conquerors next war. The great emperors of ancient India, including Chandragupta Maurya and Asoka, ran rather precarious realms. Once the center weakened, these unraveled very quickly, and society returned to its preceding complexity. Rival dynasties revived, as did defeated republics.[60]

As Altekar recognized, the mere existence of warlords was not fatal to the republican tradition of politics. Far more important was the slow abandonment of republican ideals by republicans themselves. We have seen that many republics were content even in the earliest days with a very exclusive definition of the political community. In some, ideas of wider participation gained currency and even implementation. But the contrary movement is easier to document. By the third and fourth centuries A.D., states known to be republics in earlier times were subject to hereditary executives. Eventually such republics became monarchies.[61]

An evolution away from republicanism is clearly seen in the literature of politics and religion. If we grant that the society depicted by the Pali Canon is the beginning of a new era, one with an economy and culture quite distinct from the Vedic period, it immediately becomes obvious that the most democratic ideals are the earliest. The Pali Canon, and to some extent the Jaina Canon, show us energetic movements that rejected the hierarchialism and caste ideology seen in the Vedas and Brahmanas in favor of more egalitarian values. Buddhism and Jainism were scarcely exceptional: they are merely the most successful of many contemporary religious movements, and left us records. It is clear from Panini that egalitarianism was an important element in the fifth century B.C.: he preserves a special term for the gana where "there was no distinction between high and low." [62]

Such Brahmanical classics as the Mahabharata, the writings of Kautilya and the Manu-Smrti, works that promoted hierarchy, are manifestations of a later movement (300 B.C.-200 A.D.) away from the degree of egalitarianism that had been achieved. Kautilya, who is traditionally identified with the chief minister of the Mauryan conqueror Chandragupta Maurya (fl. after 300 B.C.), is famous for his advice to monarchs on the best way to tame or destroy ganas through subterfuge; perhaps a more important part of his achievement was to formulate a political science in which royalty was normal, even though his own text shows that ganas were very important factors in the politics of his time.[63] Similarly, the accomplishment of the Manu-Smrti was to formulate a view of society where human equality was non-existent and unthinkable.

Members of ganas were encouraged to fit themselves into a hierarchical, monarchical framework by a number of factors. Kings were not the only enemies of the ganas. The relationships between competing ganas must have been a constant political problem. Ganas that claimed sovereignty over certain territory were always faced by the competing claims of other corporate groups.[64] How were these claims to be sorted out, other than by force? The king had an answer to this question: if he were acknowledged as "the only monarch [i.e. raja, chief executive] of all the corporations," [65] he would commit himself to preserving the legitimate privileges of each of them, and even protect the lesser members of each gana from abuse of power by their leaders. It was a tempting offer, and since the alternative was constant battle, it was slowly accepted, sometimes freely, sometimes under compulsion. The end result was the acceptance of a social order in which many ganas and sanghas existed, but none were sovereign and none were committed to any general egalitarian view of society. They were committed instead to a hierarchy in which they were promised a secure place.[66] Such a notional hierarchy seems to have been constructed in North India by the fifth century A.D. Even the Buddhist sangha accommodated itself to it -- which led eventually to the complete victory of the rival Brahmans.

This was not quite the end of republicanism, because "government by discussion" continued within many ganas and sanghas; but the idea of hierarchy and inequality, of caste, was increasingly dominant. The degree of corporate autonomy in later Indian society, which is considerable and in itself a very important fact, is in this sense a different topic that the one we have been following. A corporation that accepts itself as a subcaste in a great divine hierarchy is different from the more pugnacious ganas and sanghas of the Pali Canon, Kautilya or even the Jataka stories.

What have modern historians made of what we might call the golden age of Indian republicanism? We have already distinguished above between two eras of scholarship on the topic. In the first, patriotic enthusiasm and the simple thrill of discovery of unsuspected material characterized scholars' reactions. The former attitude was especially seen in K.P. Jayaswal's Hindu Polity. Published first in article form in 1911-1913, then as a book in 1924, Jayaswal's work was avowedly aimed to show that his countrymen were worthy of independence from Britain. The history of "Hindu" institutions demonstrated an ancient talent for politics:

The test of a polity is its capacity to live and develop, and its contribution to the culture and happiness of humanity. Hindu polity judged by this test will come out very successfully...The Golden Age of [the Hindu's] polity lies not in the Past but in the Future... Constitutional or social advancement is not a monopoly of any particular race.[67]

In Jayaswal's book scholarship was sometimes subordinated to his argument. In his discussion of ancient republics (which was not his only subject), the evidence was pushed at least as far as it would go to portray the republics as inspiring examples of early democracy.[68] A similar, though quieter satisfaction can be seen in the contemporary discussions of R.C. Majumdar and D.R. Bhandarkar.[69]

In the second period of scholarship, in the years since independence, a more restrained attitude has been adopted by younger scholars who feel they have nothing to prove. Among these scholars the general tendency has been to emphasize that the republics were not real republics, in the modern usage that implies a universal adult suffrage. The clan-basis and the exclusiveness of the ruling class are much discussed. Sometimes writers have bent over backwards to divorce the Indian republican experience from the history of democracy: [70] thus A.K. Majumdar's judgment that because in a gana-rajya "all inhabitants other than the members of the raja-kulas [had] no rights [and] were treated as inferior citizens," people were actually better off in the monarchies, where "if not the general mass, at least the intellectuals and the commercial community enjoyed freedom in a monarchy, which seems to have been lacking in a gana-rajya." [71] The contrast drawn here is not backed up by any real argument, and makes one wonder about the how the author defines "freedom."

The reaction has perhaps gone too far.[72] One feels that modern scholars have still not come to grips with the existence of widespread republicanism in a region so long thought to be the home par excellence of "Oriental Despotism." [73] Republicanism now has a place in every worthwhile book about ancient India, but it tends to be brushed aside so that one can get back to the main story, which is the development of the surviving Hindu tradition.[74] Historians, in India as elsewhere, seem to feel that anything which could be so thoroughly forgotten must have had grievous flaws to begin with.[75] Most historians still cannot discuss these republics without qualifying using the qualifiers "tribal" or "clan."[76] Long ago Jayaswal rightly protested against the use of these terms: "The evidence does not warrant our calling [republics] 'clans.' Indian republics of the seventh [sic] and sixth centuries B.C...had long passed the tribal stage of society. They were states, Ganas and Samghas, though many of them likely had a national or tribal basis, as every state, ancient or modern, must necessarily have." [77] He was equally correct when he pointed out that "Every state in ancient Rome and Greece was 'tribal' in the last analysis, but no constitutional historian would think of calling the republics of Rome and Greece mere tribal organizations." [78]

Yet the phrases "clan-" and "tribal-republic" are still routinely used today in the Indian context, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they are being used perjoratively. In both common and scholarly usage, to label a people's institutions or culture as tribal is to dismiss them from serious consideration. "Tribespeople" are historical dead-ends, and their suppression or absorption by more advanced cultures (usually those ruled by centralizing governments) is taken for granted.[79] The terminology of even Indian historians demonstrates the survival of an ancient but inappropriate prejudice in the general evaluation of Indian republicanism.

Once that prejudice is overcome, Indian republicanism gains a strong claim on the attention of historians, especially those with an interest in comparative or world history.

It is especially remarkable that, during the near-millenium between 500 B.C. and 400 A.D., we find republics almost anywhere in India that our sources allow us to examine society in any detail. Unless those sources, not least our Greek sources, are extremely deceptive, the republics of India were very likely more extensive and populous than the poleis of the Greeks.[80] One cannot help wondering how in many other parts of Eurasia republican and democratic states may have co-existed with the royal dynasties that are a staple of both ancient and modern chronology and conceptualization. This may well be an unanswerable question, but so far no one has even tried to investigate it. If an investigation is made, we may discover things that are as surprising to us as the republics of India originally were.

The existence of Indian republicanism is a discovery of the twentieth century. The implications of this phenomenon have yet to be fully digested, because historians of the past century have been inordinately in love with the virtues of centralized authority and government by experts, and adhered to an evolutionary historicism that has little good to say about either direct or representative democracy. Perhaps the love affair is fading. If so, historians will find, in the Indian past as elsewhere, plenty of raw material for a new history of the development of human government.


59. Sen, Studies in the Buddhist Jatakas, pp. 60-64. Compare Burton Stein, Peasant State and Society in Medieval South India (Delhi, 1980) for a similar evaluation of South Indian monarchy in a later period.

60. Altekar, State and Government, p. 136.

61. Altekar, State and Government, pp. 137-138; A.K. Majumdar, Concise History, 2: 144.

62. Agrawala, Panini, p. 428. What may be the clearest statement of egalitarian political ideology only comes to us through many intermediaries, as a tantalizing passage in Diodorus Siculus (2.39; Classical Accounts, p. 236) which seems to derive from Megasthenes: "Of several remarkable customs existing among the Indians, there is one prescribed by their [sc. Indian] 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." Megasthenes (who was a contemporary of Kautilya) is often criticized for the good reason that slavery and other forms of inequality did indeed exist among the Indians. But perhaps he correctly presented the views of "their ancient philosophers."

63. Kautilya, 11.1, Shamasastry tr. p. 410. The Mahabharata, Santi Parva, a royalist treatise on morality and politics, likewise mentions ganas (in c. 107; cf. c. 81) only to show how a raja who is not yet a true monarch in his state can implement his will -- and as we have seen, eliminating popular participation in government is an essential part of this. It is interesting to note that there are in both works passages that urge the raja to cooperate with the gana and, like the Maha-parinibbana-suttanta, emphasize the dangers to a gana of disunity. R.C. Majumdar (in Ancient India, 7th ed. (Delhi, 1974), p. 159) regarded Mahabharata, Santi Parva 107 as a piece of republican political science reworked for monarchist purposes.

64. Altekar, State and Government, p. 124, draws attention to the existence of republican-style local government within the greater republic. Cf. the Italian situation described by Hyde, Society and Politics in Medieval Italy, p. 104: "Government under medieval conditions was always a precarious matter...the Italian cities faced special problems of their own, derived from the fact that the commune was originally no more than one kind of societas in a society that abounded in societates, so that it was an uphill task to assert any special claim to the loyalty and obedience of the citizens."

65. Kautilya, 11.1, Shamasastry trans., p. 410.

66. See R.C. Majumdar, Corporate Life, pp. 42-59 for the attitude of later Dharmasastra writers to the place of semi-autonomous corporations and kindreds in the monarchical polity of the fifth century A.D. and later.

67. Pp. 366-367.

68. N.B. the introduction: "To the memory of the Republican Vrishnis, Kathas, Vaisalas, and Sakyas who announced philosophies of freedom from devas, death, cruelty and caste."

69. See above, n. 10.

70. See esp. Ghoshal's treatment, A History of Indian Public Life, ii, pp. 185-197, which goes almost as far in one direction as Jayaswal went in the other. Cf. Drekmeier, Kingship and Community in Early India, p. 279; A.K. Majumdar, Concise History, ii, pp. 139-144; Burton Stein, "Politics, Peasants and the Deconstruction of Feudalism in Medieval India," Journal of Peasant Studies, xii, no. 2-3 (1985), p. 62 (discussing South India at a later period).

71. A.K. Majumdar, Concise History, 2: 143.

72. A similar tendency in recent decades to dismiss democratic elements in classical Athens and republican Rome is now being challenged: e.g. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Peasant-Citizens and Slave: The Foundation of Athenian Democracy, corrected paperback edn. (London, 1989) and much more cautiously by John North, "Politics and Aristocracy in the Roman Republic," Classical Philology, 85 (1990): 277-287 and reply to W.V. Harris's criticisms, pp. 297-298; John North, "Democratic Politics in Republican Rome," Past and Present 126 (1990): 3-21.

73. Romila Thapar, A History of India, vol. 1 (Harmondsworth, 1966), p. 19; Bhandarkar, Lectures on the Ancient History of India, p. ix (written in 1918): "We have been so much accustomed to read and hear of Monarchy in India being always and invariably unfettered and despotic that the above conclusion [that republics were important in ancient India] is apt to appear incredible to many as it no doubt was to me for a long time."

74. A.L. Basham, The Wonder That was India (London, 1954), pp. 96-98.

75. In European history, the Anglo-Saxons have often been treated as a failed culture, and the Visigothic kingdom of Spain is seldom approached in any other way. See the opening remarks of Roger Collins, The Arab Conquest of Spain, 710-789 (Oxford, 1989).

76. Thapar is one of the few to avoid this usage.

77. Jayaswal, Hindu Polity, p. 46.

78. Jayaswal, Hindu Polity, p. 116.

79. For a general discussion of the concept of "tribalism," see Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley, 1982).

80. Agrawala, Panini, pp. 479-493.

Steve Muhlberger is a professor of History at Nipissing University. Copyright (C) Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.


The Sun News Editorials Features Sun Blogs Classifieds Events Recipes PodCasts

About Submit an Article Contact Us Advertise

Copyright 2005, All rights reserved.