Ancient India was the progenitor of democracy, as one can trace its evolution from the Vedas and subsequently hear of its presence through numerous accounts.
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The Vedic Origin
Evidence of a Democratic system of government in India is originally found in the Vedas. There is distinctive evidence from Rig Veda, which mentions a thriving republican form of Government in India. We may quote a few beautiful slokas from Rig Veda which were to be sung in unison at the beginning of the republican assembly -
“We pray for a spirit of unity; may we discuss and resolve all issues amicably,
may we reflect on all matters (of state) without rancor,
may we distribute all resources (of the state) to all stakeholders equitably,
may we accept our share with humility” - Rig Veda - 10/191/2
However, in the absence of any corroborating material evidence because of a pre historic nature of this source, most western historians tend to dismiss this foundation and instead inclined to concentrate on the Buddhist period of Indian History, which they believe has more reliable sources of corroboration. Moreover, the Buddhist period was contemporary to the Greek city states and their republics, which make it easier for them to accept. A Vedic origin indicates a time period which preceded the Greek City States by a very wide margin, telling on the western pride in Greek Civilization as the fountainhead of all modern learning.
As per Buddhist texts in Pali, politics was vigorous during the Buddhist period, 600 BC - 200 AD. During this period, India witnessed widespread urbanization, which was almost synonymous with a republican form of government. The Buddhist scriptures in Pali provide a vivid depiction of the city state of Vaishali during 5th century B.C.
As per these sources, various warrior kings often sought to exploit this amorphous structure of the society, sometimes with a measure of success. As per Buddhist literature in Pali and Brahminical literature in Sanskrit, republican system of government was almost universal.
These ancient classics offer a complex scenario to describe the different groups that managed their own affairs. Some of these groups were probably warrior formations; others were groups with avowed economic aims; some were religious fraternities. These organizations, of whatever type, were usually designated as a gana or a sangha; while less important political structures were known by such terms as sreni (guilds). The terms Gana and sangha initially meant multitude, but gradually with the passage of time, these words come to mean a self-governing multitude by 6th century BC. In this system, all decisions were taken by the sangha members themselves, and the governing style was stabilized by convention for such groups. The strongest of these groups functioned as sovereign governments, who were generally known as "republics."
Various sources indicate an almost universal presence of sovereign republics in India during that time. Commenting on the authenticity of these sources, the western historians find the Greek sources as the more credible, as the texts of those writers are more familiar to the modern western historian.
The Greek references
While describing Alexander’s campaigns in great detail, the Anabasis of contemporary Greek Historian Arrian refers to “eyewitness accounts of Alexander's companions and describes him coming across free and independent Indian communities at every turn.” The historian further mentions that many Indian republican states controlled much larger territories and enjoyed a broader mandate at that time, as compared to the contemporary Greek city states. Some other Greek writers writing about the exploits of Alexander refer to a people who practiced a democratic form of government but were not monarchial, though their sway encompassed a large area. They maintained a large army comprising of 60,000 infantry, 500 chariots and 6,000 cavalry. This indicates that Indian republics of late 4th century BC were much larger than the Greek city states of that time. It seems that republicanism was at that time the standard practice in the northwestern part of India. Alexander's historians refer to a handful of kings, but they are lavish in their praise of a large number of republics; some of them are named, while some are not.
The Greek writer Diodorus Siculus mentions that at the time of Alexander’s invasion, he mostly came across cities which practiced a democratic form of government, though some were ruled by kings. This statement assumes importance as it apparently refers to a first-person account of India by the noted Greek traveler Megasthenes. It is important to note that Greek king Seleucus Nicator deputed Megasthenes as his ambassador to the court of Indian emperor Chandragupta Maurya at around 300 BC, i.e. hardly 20 years after the invasion of Alexander. In the course of his duties, he travelled through northern India to the Mauryan capital Patliputra, where he stayed for some time. Thus, if this statement is drawn from Megasthenes, this indicates that entire northwestern India was dominated by republics at that time, signifying almost half of Indian subcontinent.
The Testimony of the Grammarian Panini
The Indian sources scrupulously support these observations. The most important indigenous sources describing north India during that time are three: The Buddhist scriptures in Pali, which describe the state of Gangetic plains during the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.; Panini’s Sanskrit Classic ‘Ashtadhyayi”, which discusses entire North India, focusing on the northwest during the 5th century; and Kautilya's Arthashastra, which got shape during the 4th century BC, i.e., almost contemporary to Megasthenes. These three indigenous sources enable us to independently identify various ganas and sanghas, some minor, while some large and powerful.
Dwelling at length on these republican polities, Panini informs us that “the states and regions (janapadas) in north India were established in his time by the conquest of a particular area by a specified invader group, which continued to hold sway on the polity of that area.” Some of these communities (in Panini's terms janapadins) were ruled by a king, who was of one of their own kinsmen and who was dependent on their support. However, in case of many other communities, the janapadins were organized as republics. In both these kind of states, the governance was dominated by Kshatriyas, or say, the warrior caste.
The Nature of Republics
Interestingly, the term raja is used in both the instances, which obviously denotes a king in case of the monarchy, but in a republican state, it could be someone deputed to assume sovereignty.
In republican states, it might mean that political power was confined to the heads of a handful of "royal families" (rajakulas) among the ruling elite. The leaders of these family groups were sanctified as kings. On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that in some polities, the empowered group was wider. Kautilya’s Arthashastra provides such an indication. According to this treatise, there were two kinds of janapadas, one predominantly martial, i.e. those constituted by soldiers, and the other constituted by craftsmen’s guilds, or by traders guilds and agriculturalists. The first were predominantly political entities where military might was the sole criteria to define those worthy of power; on the other hand, the second group appears to be such communities where wealth earned from trade and commerce provided the impetus to the political process.
The Republican Process
The gathering of the members of a sovereign gana or sangha worked together with each other as present day members of a legislature. Both the Brahminical and Buddhist literature provide details about the working of these ancient legislatures. Panini (5th century B.C.) mentions explicit terminology as regards the process of decision-making in these polities. Panini provides various terms for voting, decision making through voting, and the requirement for a quorum. Another group of terms hints that the assemblies were divided on the basis of political parties. Panini also mentions that sometimes a smaller group of selected people within a sangha were given special functions, e.g. acting as the chief functionary or probably as a select committee for some specific purpose.
Panini also indicates that these republics functioned on an egalitarian basis during the 5th century BC, and he mentions that "there was no consideration of high and low." Kautilya’s Arthashastra specifies that ganas were an important factor in the polity of his time.
The Decline of Republics
It is remarkable to note that for several centuries, the avarice of monarchs, even of the greatest, impacted the sovereign republics only to a limited extent, with not much effect on the internal management of guilds, or religious sanghas, or the social life in the villages. As a matter of fact, the conquerors were hardly interested in restructuring the society, or to carve out kingdoms as we visualize them today. The kings were often satisfied with the acquiescence of their neighborhood states, whether they were republics or other kings. The defeated adversaries were often let off to look after their own realm, but were asked to pay a tribute or to provide troops in support of the conquerors’ war efforts.
It is therefore interesting to note that the existence of an aggressive warlord in the neighborhood did not pose much of a problem for the republican politics. We have to look elsewhere to search for the reasons for the gradual breakdown of sanghas. Apparently, a major stimulus came from within, as the republicans themselves gradually forsake the republican ethics by the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. In some instances, some well established republics gradually transformed and subjected themselves to hereditary chieftains. In due course, these republics transformed as monarchies.
If we try to explore further into the underlying causes of the disintegration of these republics, we come across instances where members of ganas themselves sought this transformation due to various reasons. Quite frequently, the impetus to transform grew out of the ongoing frustration caused by inter-gana equations among the equal and often competing polities. It can be visualized that Ganas claiming certain territory as their own were obstructed by other corporate groups. In the event of any territorial disputes, which were many, there was no arbitrating force which could sort out the tangle and reconcile the differences.
In a vast country like India and the number of equal and often competing republics many, there was apparently an inchoate wish in these circumstances to seek to identify some centralized coordinating authority, which could arbitrate in case of any inter-state conflict, even by preparing to relinquish a part of their sovereignty. Such an authority could take up the challenge of safeguarding their legitimate interests and protecting the weaker ones, by arrogating to itself imperialistic pretensions.
This was perhaps the political environment of the sub-continent, which supported the emergence of the first pan-India empire in India, in the shape and form of the redoubtable Mauryan Empire (322 BC - 185 BC). The stage had in any case been set by Alexander’s Invasion (327-326 BC) into the north-western flank of the country. Although Alexander decided to turn back instead of facing the mighty Magadha Empire ruled at that time by the powerful Nanda Dynasty, the writing on the wall was evident for the indigenous republicans.
The Republics Transformed
Thus, we see the republics withering away gradually. The political discourse was henceforth dominated by powerful empires. Though the ganas and sanghas continued to exist in theory, but now their sovereignty was compromised, giving way to a new social order, based on hierarchy at the cost of the former egalitarian structure of the country.
However, this spirit of republicanism continued to thrive at the grassroots at village level, which were left undisturbed to their own devices in the new political order. Likewise, the economic guilds organised on a republican pattern continued to function and to thrive even during the powerful Mauryan Empire.