Upinder Singh: Why it may be wrong to ask whether India is the mother of democracy

Non-monarchical traditions of ancient India were different from modern democracy

49-Sanchi-Stupa-in-Madhya-Pradesh People and power: Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh | Shutterstock

TO THE MEMORY of the Republican Vrishnis, Kathas, Vaishalas and Shakyas who announced philosophies of freedom from devas, cruelty, and caste.”

The passionate tenor of K. P. Jayaswal’s dedication to his book Hindu Polity (1924) is not surprising. The discovery of ancient Indian ‘republics’ proved that western descriptions of Indian history as marked by unmitigated despotism was false. While nationalist scholars such as Jayaswal made important contributions to the understanding of non-monarchical states in ancient India, they idealised them, exaggerated their democratic nature, and used an anachronistic vocabulary.

The current public interest in democracy stems from two different trends. The first is a hyper-nationalist view that heralds ancient India as the fount of all things great in the world. The second is a yearning to find democracy and debate in the ancient past against the background of rising authoritarianism. The historian’s dharma is to steer clear of both trends and to dispassionately analyse the evidence.

Upinder Singh | Sanjay Ahlawat Upinder Singh | Sanjay Ahlawat

The Greeks invented the word demokrataia (power of the people) and used it to describe a political system that was adopted in many city-states. Its roots can be traced to the sixth century BCE, its fully developed form and its demise to the fourth century BCE. In ancient Greece, democracy was debated, lauded, critiqued, and even denounced. This was a direct democracy, in which all citizens, regardless of property, wealth or status, were entitled to participate in the deliberations of the assembly and be involved in executive and judicial administration. It went hand in hand with notions of citizenship (politeia), equality (isonomia) and freedom (eleutheria). However, women, slaves and foreigners were not citizens and did not enjoy political rights.

Non-monarchical political systems existed in various other parts of the ancient world, including India. It is important to recognise differences in the meanings of words in ancient and modern times. So, asking whether democracy existed in ancient India can lead to muddled conclusions. It is better to ask the following questions: Did non-monarchical states exist? Do ancient texts display a concern about the excesses of autocratic rule? Were there corporate organisations? Were subjects given a role in ancient Indian political thought?

While searching for answers, we should remember that across the centuries, the vast forest stretches of the subcontinent were inhabited by tribes who had their own political and social traditions that are undocumented.

Did non-monarchical political systems exist in ancient India? Yes. In the tribal polity reflected in the Rig Veda, apart from the chieftain known as the rajan, the sabha and samiti were assemblies whose power declined as that of kings rose. The 16 great states of sixth century BCE north India included the Vajji and Malla, non-monarchical states described as ganas or sanghas. As meaning can get lost in translation, it is best to leave these terms untranslated.

Several non-monarchical states are mentioned in Buddhist and Jaina texts, Panini’s Astadhyayi, the Mahabharat and Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Greek accounts of Alexander’s campaigns refer to ‘autonomous Indians’ and ‘democracies’. Buddhist texts offer details about the Lichchhavis, who were part of the Vajji confederacy, and it is likely that the procedures of the Buddhist monastic order were modelled on this gana. The Lichchhavis had an assembly consisting of the heads of Kshatriya families, which met annually. A council of nine handled day-to-day administration. The Ekapanna Jataka states that in their capital, Vaishali, there were 7,707 rajas (rulers), and a similar number of uparajas (subordinate kings), senapatis (military commanders) and bhandagarikas (treasurers). We need not take the numbers literally, but they point to a system of power-sharing. There were other less powerful ganas, such as the Shakyas, Koliyas, Bulis, Kalamas, Moriyas and Bhaggas.

Temple of democracy: The Vaikunda Perumal temple at Uthiramerur, Tamil Nadu, where ancient inscriptions detailing systems of self-governance were discovered; (left) the inscriptions | R.G. Sasthaa Temple of democracy: The Vaikunda Perumal temple at Uthiramerur, Tamil Nadu, where ancient inscriptions detailing systems of self-governance were discovered; (left) the inscriptions | R.G. Sasthaa

The heads of Kshatriya families who attended the assembly were probably also large landowners. Various other groups―Brahmins, lower castes, tenant farmers, artisans, wage labourers and slaves―lived in the ganas. They were not part of the assembly. Nor were women. Therefore the ganas are best described as Kshatriya aristocracies or oligarchies, where power was shared by a group of clansmen.

It seems more than a coincidence that Mahavira, the Buddha and Krishna were associated with ganas―Mahavira with the Jnatrika clan (part of the Vajji confederacy), the Buddha with the Shakyas, and Krishna with the Vrishnis. The Brahmin Ambattha’s complaint that the Shakya assembly laughed at him and treated him disrespectfully when he visited Kapilavastu suggests a climate where Brahmins did not enjoy the social prestige they did in monarchies. Another difference was the absence of a standing army recruited and maintained by the state. This was the most important reason why the ganas never established empires and ultimately lost out militarily to kingdoms.

Many texts talk about the ganas’ susceptibility to arrogance, quarrel and internal dissension. The Lalitavistara states that each one of the Lichchhavis thinks, ‘I am king! I am king!’ Ajatashatru, king of Magadha, ultimately managed to defeat the Lichchhavis through a policy of attrition, weakening them internally by sowing seeds of dissension among their ranks. This is precisely the sort of strategy recommended by Kautilya. In the Mahabharat, Bhishma’s observations on the ganas’ strengths and weaknesses match those of Buddhist texts and the Arthashastra.

Although Ajatashatru defeated the Lichchhavis, they survived, and so did the non-monarchical system. In the early centuries CE, names of the Yaudheya, Malava, Uddehika, and Arjunayana ganas appear on coins. The Guptas had a matrimonial alliance with the Lichchhavis which was commemorated on gold coins and proclaimed in inscriptions which refer to Samudragupta as grandson of the Lichchhavis. Ironically, Samudragupta’s military campaigns were responsible for reducing the ganas to political insignificance.

Do ancient Indian texts display a concern about the excesses of autocratic rule? Yes. The dominant strand in ancient Indian political thought exalts kingship and equates monarchy with social order (and kinglessness with disorder), but there was an awareness of the dangers of tyranny. According to the dharma view of politics, kings were answerable to a higher moral law. In his long, deathbed oration, Bhishma holds forth to Yudhishthira on raja-dharma (the dharma of kings) and emphasises that rulers must be just in taxation and punishment. A just king goes to heaven, an unjust one goes to hell. Further, he tells Yudhishthira, a cruel king, who after promising to protect his subjects does not do so, or who robs them in the name of levying taxes, is evil incarnate and should be killed by his subjects as though he were a mad dog. So if a king does not perform his duties and is avaricious, cruel and unjust, the Mahabharat sanctions regicide. Kautilya, who has no dharmic compunctions and is usually considered (wrongly) a supporter of totalitarianism, emphasises that rulers must be properly educated, well-trained and self-controlled; they must listen to the advice of others, make judicious choices, and use force only as a last resort.

Were there corporate organisations in ancient India? Yes. Guilds of craftsmen and traders existed in various part of the subcontinent from the sixth century BCE onwards. Inscriptions reveal their affluence and influence as religious patrons and bankers. The most substantial evidence of corporate organisations comes from early medieval South India. The ur was a village assembly consisting of tax-paying landowners, the sabha a Brahmin assembly in villages granted by kings to Brahmins. The famous Uthiramerur inscription from Tamil Nadu, which talks of the selection of various committees through a draw of lots, refers to decisions made by property-owning members of the Brahmin sabha. Assemblies at the nadu (locality) level were responsible for land assessment, tax collection and irrigation management. Marketing or commercial centres known as nagarams, too, had corporate bodies consisting of merchants. And there were many merchant guilds, the most powerful of which were the Ayyavole and Manigramam.

Were subjects given a role in ancient Indian political thought? Yes. The praja was considered an important part of the body politic. Theories of the origin of kingship and discussions of a ruler’s duties emphasise that taxes are the king’s wages for protecting his subjects, dispensing justice and maintaining social order. This is different from the idea of citizenship in the sense of people’s rights of political participation. Kautilya’s brilliance lies in the fact that he was able to demonstrate through argument that it was in the king’s self-interest to promote his people’s prosperity and welfare. There are no records of popular revolts in ancient India, but Kautilya’s references to prakriti-kopa (the anger of the people) reflect an anxiety about popular disaffection.

Ancient India had long and vibrant traditions of non-monarchical states, corporate bodies, and critiques of power based on the idea that rulers must discharge their duties towards their subjects. But access to political power was circumscribed by widely accepted hierarchies of class, caste and gender. This is very different from modern Indian democracy which is―at least theoretically―based on principles of freedom and social and political equality.

Singh is professor of history at Ashoka University, Delhi. Views expressed are personal.