Ancient Indian Aristocratic Republics

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Map of the 16 Janapadas. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I was reading about non-monarchical forms of government in ancient India. Really I was interested in what they call the “Republics” of ancient India. But that concept is a bit misleading. It has all sorts of Eurocentric connotations, and implicit associations with democracy, egalitarianism, populism, etc. It has those implicit connections even though many European republics were essentially similar to the Indian ones insofar as they had restricted franchise and were basically aristocratic or oligarchic in nature, or merchant guild-based. In Sanskrit they were called Janapadas, Gana Sanghas, or a few other more esoteric words. 

I suppose one major difference between Indian and European republics is that there is  European republics frequently had agents which were said to “represent” the people, implying that “the people” were the sovereign ruler of the society. “The People” generally had an aristocratic definition, but also had the capacity to get quite plebian. It is difficult to tell who was regarded as sovereign in some of the following Indian examples, but if I had to guess I would say that as a general rule the ruling Kshatriya clan, or confederation of clans, was regarded as sovereigs. That said, in other literature I also saw evidence to suggest that sovereignty was also sometimes vested in individual villages, districts, or constituent guilds or corporations which themselves sent representatives to the council. Without copies of their constitutions we don’t know for sure, but I don’t evidence of directly democratic institutions. And why would we? Political egalitarianism is an alien concept to the subcontinent.

Given the existence of these republics really amazing that we still think of India as a static land of “Oriental Despotism.” For instance, we think of Buddha as a “Prince” when really he was a prince only insofar as he was the son of the elected leader of the Shakya Republic (to be fair, Buddhist literature inflates Sudhodana’s reputation which confuses this issue as much as the Hegelian/Marxist historiography). Republics are also central to the history of Jainism. Anyway the point is, India had ancient aristocratic republics and that is cool.

Below is a large chunk of Chapter 1: Forms and Types of States from the book Aspects of the ancient Indian polity, by Narendra Nath Law,  (Oxford, The Clarendon press, 1921.) Apologies for the typographical errors, I tried to clean up the ones which inhibited meaning:

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Suddhonana (father of Gautama Buddha) performing the seasonal inaugural rice plowing ritual. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“India has seen multitude of forms of government, and her political experience has not been derived from one form alone. Monarchy was the prevailing form of government, but was not the only form. The Arthasastra knows of a constitution in which the sovereign power wielded by family or clan (kula), and states, in connexion with the succession to a vacant throne, that a pure monarchy may pass into constitution of the aforesaid kind by combination of circumstances.1 Kautilya extols this constitution for its safety and efficiency. He also mentions many self-governing clans, viz. Licchivika, Vrjjika, Mallaka, Madraka, Kukura, Kuru, and Pancala, as well as those of Kamboja and Surastra.2 Some of these clans appear in the list of the sixteen independent peoples existing at or shortly before the time when Buddhism arose, viz. Anga, Magadha, Kasi, Kosala, Vajji, Malla, Cetl, Vamsa, Kuru, Paficala, Maccha, Surasena, Assaka. Avantti, Gandhara and Kamboja.1 A few other clans of the time were the famous Sakiyas, Bhaggas of Sumsumara Hill, Bulis of Allakappa, Kalamas of Kesaputta, Koliyas of Rama-gama, and Moriyans of Pipphalivana.2

An insight into the administrative machinery of some of these clans can be obtained from a study of the methods by which they disposed of the business of the state. The administrativetogether with the judicial work of the Sakiya clan, for instance, was done in a public assembly their common Mote-Hall(Santhagara) at Kapilavastu, where both young arid old met to attend to state-affairs.3 The Mallas had a similar hall where Ananda is said to have gone to announce Buddha’s death,4 and the Licchavis had another where Saccaka went to inform them of his desire to hold a philosophical discussion with Buddha.5 An office-bearer, corresponding to the Greek Archon or the Roman Consul and bearing the title of Rajan, was elected to preside over the meetings and act as the administrative head.

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Proposed site of elected King Suddhonana’s palace in Kapilivastu, Nepal. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Besides the Mote-Hall at the metropolis, there were several minor halls at towns and other important places, as also in every village within the dominion of each clan, where the local people did their share of administrative business.6 The building of Mote-Halls, rest-houses, and reservoirs, the mending of roads between their own and neighbouring villages, the laying out of parks, and such other works of public utility, for instance, constantly exercised the co-operation of the villagers, including women, who were proud to take an active part in these public affairs.1 Thus the people obtained opportunities for exercising their intelligence on village and town affairs which gave them a training in the more difficult work of guiding and controlling larger interests common to many such townships and village- communities. We find an instance of such administration of larger common interests in the local self- government obtaining in the capital of Candragupta Maurya.4

The Vrjjis or Samvrjjis (i.e. United Vrjjis) were a con federation of eight clans, of whom the most important were the Licchavis, with their capital at Vaisali, and the Videhas, with their chief town Mithila. The Vrjjis were all republicans,3 and the Licchavis, we notice, did not elect a single chief, like the other clans already mentioned, but a triumvirate, to conduct their administration.4 The people of Kasi (Benares) had once their republic, which is testified to by their possession of a public hall used as a ‘parliament chamber for the transaction of public business.’ 5

Megasthenes records an Indian tradition that from the time of Dionysos to Sandrokottos, the Indians counted 153 kings  and a period of 6,042 years ; among these a republic was thrice established which, along with the following two passages from the pen of the same authority, points to democracies in ancient India:

(i) At last, after many generations had come and gone, the sovereignty, it is said, was dissolved, and democratic government set up in the cities ‘-1

(2) Maltecorai, Singhai, Marohai, Rarungai, and Morunoi are free, have no kings, and occupy mountain heights where they have built many cities

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Coin depicting Karttikeya from the Yaudheya Gana, one of the later republics. They were referred to as “Heroes of the Kshatriyas” in a Rudraman I rock inscription. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There are further evidences of non-regal states in ancient India. Arrian says that the Nysaians were free, had president, and entrusted the government of their state to the aristocracy.3 He also refers to the Oreitai4 as an independent tribe with leaders, while Curtius mentions the Sabarcae as a powerful Indian tribe whose form of government was democratic and not regal and the Cedrosii (i.e. Gedrosioi) as a free people with a council for discussing important matters of state.6 Diodoros describes the Sambastai as dwelling in cities with democratic form of administration, and Tauala name which has been restored to Patala as its correct form) as ‘a city of great note with political constitution drawn on the same lines as the Spartan for in this community the command in war was vested in two hereditary kings of two different houses, while a council of elders ruled the whole state with paramount authority.8 The Malloi are simply referred to by Arrian as ‘a race of independent Indians but the Oxydrakai, we learn from him, were attached more than others to freedom and autonomy,which they preserved intact for very long time before Alexander’s invasion.10. The Malloi e. the Malavas) and the Oxydrakai (the Ksudrakas) figure in a few Sanskrit works, e. g. the Kasika-vrtti l and the Mahabharata’ Noteworthy also is the case of the Yaudheyas, 3 a warrior clan, known to Panini, whose existence is attested as late as the time of Samudragupta, and whose coins bear symbols of the military character of the clan. There was also a race in the Punjab living under democratic institutions, viz. the Kathaioi, who formed part of the people known as the Arattas (kingless), described by Justin as robbers and denounced as such in the Mahabharata, and whom Candragupta Maurya used as weapons for wresting for himself the sovereignty of the Punjab.4

The Mahabharata expatiates on the policy that should be followed by the monarch in regard to the Ganas, and by the Ganas themselves for self-preservation. These Ganas appear to have been self-governing communities. Thus in the Santi-Parvan (107. 6.) the word Gana appears rather to refer to self-governing communities than to mere corporations of traders or artisans, or to the ‘aristocracy in a state’, as Mr. Pratap Roy translates though should be noted that the word bears other significations in other contexts. The commentary of Nilakantha very meagre on this chapter, but he seems to have taken the word Gana as meaning self-governing community. The chapter gives some details of its constitution its members are described as the same in respect of jati and kula, and its state affairs as conducted by body of leaders, who are advised to keep among themselves alone the matters they discuss. The commentators of the Vedic Samhitas appear to be right in interpreting the word Gana as corporation” or guild” in a few passages.1

Prof. Hopkins remarks2 that the growth of commercial interests led ultimately to the establishment of a sort of trade- unions or guilds. They are mentioned early as of importance (see Manu, viii. 41), though they may belong to a late period in their full development. Such corporations had their own rules and laws subject to the king’s inspection, the king not  being allowed (theoretically) to have established, or to establish, any laws that contradicted those already approved or sanctioned by usage. The heads of these bodies are mentioned together with the priests as political factors of weight, whose views are worth grave consideration. As an informal instance of we find prince (Duryodhana) defeated in battle and ashamed to return home for what he exclaims, shall have to say to my relatives, to the priests, and to the heads cf the corporations’ Prominence given to the guilds in the later books of the Mahabharata. There also we find corporations of every sort under the name Gana of the members of which the king particularly recommended to be careful, since enemies  are apt to make use of them by bribery. But dissension is their weak point. Through dissension and bribery they may be controlled by the king. On the other hand union is the safeguard of corporations ‘.

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Position of the Yaudhevas (central north) in relation to contemporary kingdoms. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I should remark that the word corporation ‘, as used in the above extract, is not a good rendering of Sreni or Gait in its reference to self-ruled communities of military character. Dr. Fleet, after much discussion with Dr. Thomas over the proper rendering of Malava-gana-sthiti, comes to the conclusion 1 that though Gana may have many meanings and has to be translated in each particular case according to the context, it is best rendered in the above expression by tribe ‘. Dr. Thomas objects on many grounds, one of which is that when coins are issued by the authority of a Gana (which is the case with the Yaudheyas), or an era is maintained by it (which is the case with the Malavas), plainly the absence of royalty is implied ‘.2 The description of Gana in the Mahabharata (xii. 107) cited above also points to a status of independence, or at least semi- independence, which the word ‘tribe’ does not express. In order  to bring out this essential implication of Gana, the word tribe should have some qualifying epithet, and for this reason the expression autonomous tribe (used by Mr. V. A. Smith) or self-governing community is preferable to corporation or tribe ‘.

It does not appear clearly whether any oligarchies existed in the Vedic period. According to Zimmer,3 there are traces in a passage in the Rg-Veda 4 that normally there was no king in some states, the members of the royal house holding equal rights. It is compared by him to the state of affairs in early Germany.6 Messrs. Macdonell and Keith, however, are of opinion that the passage depended upon is not decisive for the sense ascribed to though of course the state of affairs perfectly possible and exemplified later in Buddhist times This latter view gains support from the case of Citraratha, who performed a special kind of sacrifice (dviratra), which led to the result that the Caitrarathis were distinguished from other royal families by the fact that ‘the chief of the clan received a markedly higher position than in most cases, in which probably the heads of the family were rather an oligarchy than a monarch (with) his dependants.’1  Megasthenes records that the vox populi was recognized as an effective and potent factor which the responsible officers consulted in cases of failure of heirs in the royal house. On. such occasions, the Indians ‘, we are told, elected their ; sovereigns on the principle of merit’.2 We learn from the Ramayana that respect was shown to the opinion of the people in the choice of a successor to the reigning sovereign, as also on the rather rare occasions of failures of heirs in the ruling house.

Prof. Hopkins says that the assent of the people was obtained to the succession in the first place. After the king’s death, the priests and people met in the royal court and decided which prince should be king. The chief priest made an address explaining the death of the king and the necessity  for having a new king on the throne. The elder son (Rama) being banished, the younger must reign to prevent the many evils of anarchy. The older councillors expressed their assent, saying, Even when the king was alive, we stood at your orders (sasane) ; proceed, then ; give your orders.’ After this the election was practically over, and only the ceremony remained to be performed.3

There are also traces of the existence of the elective principle in the Vedic times. Zimmer 4 is of opinion that the Vedic monarchy, though sometimes hereditary, can be shown by the several cases in which the descent can be traced,5 was yet elective in the other instances, though it is not apparent whether the people selected from among the members of the royal house or those of all the noble clans. Geldner l argues, however, that the evidence for the elective monarchy is not so strong, as the passages 2 cited are regarded by him not as indicative of choice by the cantons ( Vis) but of acceptance by the subjects. This of course, as Messrs. Macdonell and Keith observe, no proof that the monarchy was not sometimes elective. The practice of selecting one member of the royal family to the exclusion of another less qualified exemplified by the legend of the Kuru brothers Devapi and Santanu referred to in Yaska,3 the value of which .as evidence of contemporary views not seriously affected by the fact that the legend itself of dubious character and validity.4

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It is still unclear to me whether the Ganas eventually evolved into being primarily merchant guilds or corporations, or if the concept of “Gana” simply changed over time. Perhaps some of both. The latter seems more obvious but the former would be more optimistic. Image Source: Kamat.com

The power of the people was stronger in those days in proportion to the greater insecurity of the sovereign. There are several references to the latter being expelled5 from their dominions, and to their efforts to be reinstated to their former position. The inviolability of the sovereign’s authority recognized even in the Vedic period, he himself being ‘exempt from punishment’ (adandya), but having the power to inflict on others judicial punishment (danda-vadha).6 The expulsion was the last resort of the people, who could, of course, effect more by the aid of abnormal circumstances than by dint of their unaided will. The sovereign’s immunity from punishment should, therefore, be taken as the normal rule. A few instances of sovereigns deposed or expelled from the realms may be cited here : Dustartu Paumsayana (the first word literally means hard to fight king of the Srnjayas, was deposed by them from principality that had existed for ten generations, but was restored by Patava Cakra Sthapati in, spite of the resistance of Balhika Pratipiya,1 the Kuru king. Dirghasravas (i.e. ‘far-famed’) was also banished from his kingdom,2 as also Sindhuksit, who had to remain in exile for a long time before he could be restored.3 The case of Vena4 being deposed and killed in later times may also be mentioned.

A trace of the deference paid to the will of the people in early times exists also perhaps in the ritual of the Rajasuya called the Ratnahavis, in which offerings were made by the king on successive days in the houses of persons termed Ratnins, including among others Ksatriya, village-headman, and such other individuals, who were either mere subjects, king’s officials, or relatives, to whom, or at least to some of whom, the title of Rajakartr (king-maker) was applied.5 Though in later times the ceremony may have been no more than a mere formality observed during the inauguration, yet in its incep tion in remoter periods was probably associated with the deference shown to the opinion of the people, who then wielded much greater power in the state. Some of the Ratnins were perhaps representatives of the people or certain classes of the subjects turned into mere ceremonial figures in subsequent times by the growth of the royal power.

The ordinary form of government in Vedic times, however, was the monarchical, as might be naturally expected from the situation of the Indian Aryans surrounded by hostile races.There are clear signs that the power of the monarch was curbed by the existence of the assembly which he had toconsult, and concord between them was essential for the prosperity of the former as also of the people at large.6

In the titles assumed by the sovereigns, as well as the epithets by which they are mentioned, we find evidences of higher and lower positions among them. Messrs. Macdonell and Keith remark that the states were seemingly small,1 and there are no clear signs of any really large kingdoms, despite the mention of Maharajas. This may be true, but it does not negative the possibility that there were royal hierarchies among the states of the early Vedic period. The area upon which the Aryans spread themselves in those times was not even the whole of Northern India, and necessarily we cannot expect to have an emperor with a territory extending from sea to sea. Yet among the existing states one or the other rose to a supremacy over some others, which may have prompted its ruler to assume a title indicative of his superiority to the subordinate states. Samraj is the epithet applied to a ‘superior ruler’ in the Rg-Veda as also in later works, expressing a greater degree of power than that of a Rajan (‘ King ‘). Adhiraja* frequently met with in the early Sanskrit literature, signifies an ‘overlord’ among kings or princes.5 Similarly, we have Maharaja}- Rajadhirdja and Ekaraja.

From here the text goes into many pages detailing the opposite spectrum i.e. absolute monarchies and emperorship, before talking about constitutional monarchies and again, council based forms of government at the end of the chapter:

According to Mr. Kanakasabhai, India has seen not merely Pure democracies or pure .monarchies, but also constitutions in which there were hereditary monarchs between whom and the subjects there were distinct organs to restrict the powers of

the former and act as buffers. In this arrangement there was an organized institution of the state to voice forth the people’s views. We find examples of such an organization in each of the three kingdoms of Cera, Cola, and Pandya of the extreme south about eighteen centuries ago. There the hereditary monarch, along with the Five Great Assemblies 4 consisting of the representatives of the people, priests, physicians, astrologers, and ministers respectively, wielded the sovereign- power, and not the monarch alone. The first council safe guarded the rights and privileges of the people, the second directed all religious ceremonies, and the third all matters affecting the health of the king and the public. The fourth, like the Roman augurs, fixed auspicious times for public ceremonies and predicted important events, while the fifth attended to the administration of justice and the collection and expenditure of revenue.1 This system of government, there is reason to believe, as Mr. Kanakasabhai says, was not peculiar to the south, but had its original in the Magadhan Empire of the North, from which the founders of the three kingdoms had formerly migrated.

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Image Source: Indian Defense Review

An editorial comment after all of that: India’s current Republican form is premised on European notions of socialism, democracy and egalitarianism which developed under dramatically different social, geographic and genetic conditions. India would probably be better served by throwing out its monstrosity of a constitution and replacing it with a modernized aristocratic republic which more suits India’s history, genetic profile, and optimal cultural trajectory.

3 comments on “Ancient Indian Aristocratic Republics

  1. All of the references to the various “kingless” states, with descriptions of guilds, families, assemblies etc. reminds me very much of the older Harrappan societies, a depiction of which emerges quite clearly in Rita P. Wright’s “The Ancient Indus.” Her extensive coverage of the archaeological work in the Indus plains (from 1845 to the present) show a society that had no central ruling authority. Is it too much to add that there is very little evidence that the Harrappans waged war? I wonder what Professor Law would have made of all of this.

    Roy

    • Yes, I have also heard that about the Indus Valley civilization. Wish there was more information about them. But it does seem clear that they at least didn’t have huge omnipotent monarchies like those which existed in Sumer, or which emerged later in India. I have also seen journal articles about the ruins of cities in Mesoamerica which were most likely governed by what we would call “republics” of some sort or another. So the idea that civilization started with tyrannical priest-kings and has only recently become more free seems to be basically a myth.

      • I got Wright’s book a couple of years ago, it’s from Cambridge UP Press, about 25 bucks from Amazon. Up until I got it, I found most of the books about the Indus to be frustrating. People like Mortimer Wheeler focused too much on the (as-of-yet) undeciphered script, and he led himself astray in a number of areas, most notably seeing graineries as forts etc – simply because in Egypt and Mesopotamia, there were kings, kingdoms and wars. Sumer, Elam, Ebla, Ugarit, the various Egyptian dynasties. I would say that Wright’s book is the benchmark on the Indus peoples and well worth the money.

        Since my initial comment, I thought about why your post brought her book to mind, and I think that it was the lack of a centralized government and all that which Professor Law outlined. No-one knows “where” the Indus people “went” (though I favor them being the source of the Dravidian peoples), but I entertain the idea that their social structures lived on in the “kingdoms” mentioned here.

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