Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Indic Republics

I largely rely on K. Antonova, G. Bongard-Levin, and G. Kotovsky, "A History of India: Book One", Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979 for purposes of this post. I have simplified the material in the interest of brevity.

India had a rich republican tradition in the first millenium BCE, one that ended only in 500 CE. The Vedic texts, Panini, the Buddhist texts, the Arthashatra, the Greek texts and the Mahabharata outline the vibrant republican tradition in ancient India. India had sixteen janapadas in the 7th century BCE. The word Janapada translated means "the foothold of a people". The Indic republics were located either in the northern periphery of the Gangetic plain or in the Indus basin. The republics included confederate unions that linked several tribes such as the Vrijjis and the Yadavas, or individual republics such as the Koliyans, the Shakyas and the Mallas. The Licchavis were one tribe in the Vrijji confederacy that survived 1,000 years to merge with the Gupta empire through marriage.

The word "jana" in Vedic times either meant a people or a tribe. It often implied a non-monarchical state. One Indic text described a monarchy as a land ruled by an individual. It defined a republic as a state that was collectively administered.

A republic was identified by the absence of a hereditary ruler with absolute power. It had an elected head who could be replaced. Elections did not mean democracy. Only the landed few or the Kshatriya had the right to decide. Nonetheless, the system represented a significant achievement in political thought in that it broadened decision making in 500 BCE.

The Chivara-vastu, a Pali text dated to the 1st century BCE, describes the election of the Lichchavi ruler and adds (i) that a candidate had to demonstrate merit; (ii) the assembly retained the right to replace him if he did not enjoy its prior sanction for policy; and (iii) that a ruler had executive power to implement while the assembly retained the right to define policy. The system was one "where even the decision taken by ten men might be reviewed by twenty". This implied the concept of collective scrutiny of policy.

In short, a republic was administration through a partly representative assembly with the implied notion of a social contract. The Indic republics tended to be more independent minded and individualistic in orientation than the monarchies. The Kshatriya leadership of the republics helped define the Upanishads and Buddhism. A spirit of free inquiry prevailed.

The republican assembly had a narrow social base. It was confined to free citizens who in turn chose a council of nobility, entirely drawn from the Kshatriya caste. The Vedic concept of the sabha and samithi comes to mind. All heads of families met in the public assembly. The matter for discussion was placed before the assembly and debated. If a unanimous decision could not be reached, it was put to the vote. The Indic republics enjoyed an elaborate judicial procedure where the suspected criminal had to face in turn a hierarchy of seven officials. In certain instances, a republican constitution governed the affairs of state. All dignitaries in a republic, be it the army commander or judge, had to be kshatriya. This said, a broader segment of the population as opposed to one individual defined policy.

Kautilya praised the Indic republics as invincible in warfare due to their cohesion. The Mahabharata however highlighted the social contradictions within the republics that made them vulnerable. The records of a slave revolt in the Shakyan republic come to mind in this regard.

The monarchical system eventually replaced the republican in ancient India. The kingdoms of Magadha, Kosala and Kashi expanded while the Vrijjis, the Mallas and the Shakyas disappeared. However, the concept of collective administration through debate persisted down the centuries in the panchayat system as enunciated in the Dharma Shastras.


cynical nerd said...

Jaffna: Very interesting. I think Arun Shourie too refers to this book in his "Eminent Historians". Would love to get my hands on this work.

I have also heard about the ancient voting method in Tamil Nadu where the candidates name are put in an urn and a child is asked to select the candidate. Forgot the name of the method.


Suraj said...

Cynical Nerd: The ancient Tamil method you refer to is called the "Kudaolai" method. Is the mehtod of governance metioned in Jaffna's post similar to the Senate of Rome?

Jaffna said...

Cynical Nerd and Suraj,

Tamil Nadu under the Cholas in the 10th century had an elaborate system of local government i.e. the sabhai, nagaram and ur for brahma deya lands, cities and villages respectively. The voting method you refer to was just one. There was also the system of the one delegate one vote system that has been recorded in inscriptions. But that blog later.

I think another clarification is in order. Different Indic republics had different "constitutions". Therefore the comparison with the Roman Senate might have held in certain ancient Indic republics but not in others. This said, one could speak of a "lower house" of all "free" citizens and an "upper house" of tribal notables. The purpose of the post was to illustrate the principle of representative government (despite limitations on how representative the assemblies really were) and the principle of public scrutiny of executive decision in the 5th century BCE. Many of the republics were in effect oligarchies.

However, India had a tradition of a participatory civic culture that needs to be recognized. These are clearly modern concepts although they were later eclipsed by the inevitable rise of the monarchical system of government. The contrast between ancient India and ancient China is noticeable in this regard.

Space constraints prevented me from further elaborating the republican mode. Alexander's troops (this was not mentioned in the book I referred to) faced severe resistance in the Punjab partly due to the republican military formations, one of which was led by a woman. More research needs to be done on the subject.

Best regards

cynical nerd said...

Suraj: Thanks for "Kudai olai"!

Jaffna: Thanks again for the elaboration, it is amazing how little i know about our own countries! That Alexander story is certainly worth pursuing.


doubtinggaurav said...


Could you write about slavery in India?


Jaffna said...


Another time!

Slavery in ancient India was far less prevalent than in classical Greece, Rome, the Arab world or in the Americas. India had the institution of untouchability, not that of widespread slavery.

In fact, Megasthenes, the Greek envoy at the court of Chandragupta Maurya remarked that India did not have slavery. He was wrong but not too wrong. Slavery was limited in prevalence in pre-Sultanate India.

Medieval Europe, China and Tibet had the institution of widespread serfdom. Serfs constituted the majority of the Russian population while the impoverished third estate comprised the majority in pre-revolutionary France.

So each society had its baggage of exploitation sanctioned by religion.

best regards

madhavan said...

John Keay also describes the evolution of governments in India -- most systems started as clans -- India had 16 major ones during the Mahabharata era (800-1000 BCE??). The leader was selected from the senior members (similar to modern corporates/the vatican) by a small group; this slowly became hereditary as the incumbent would help his kin rise to sr management positions (similar to family run businesses), which evolved into monarchy.

Jaffna said...


Interesting point. Thanks.

The consolidation of monarchy in ancient India (at the expense of the republics) was often characterized by bloodshed and murder.

Ajatasatru of Magadha killed his father King Bimbisara. King Prasenajit of Kosala was murdered by his son - if I remember correct. The entire Shakya clan was destroyed in the whirlpool of imperial consolidation. I think Kosala had annexed it. Ajatasatru sowed dissension amongst the Vrijjis to annex the republican confederacy.

Ashoka Maurya killed his brothers to gain the throne. In short, the consolidation of monarchy was not smooth, to say the least.


Anonymous said...


Extremely informative piece on the history of the republican mode in old India. Reminds one of Athens and the Roman Republic though the intellectual space is not the same.


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