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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The Anglo-Saxons Were Robbers and Pirates in Their Own Country

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Lysander Spooner. Image Source: Volokh

Wipe out, then, these feudal robbers – the whole race of kings, and queens, and nobles, and all their accomplices in every grade of life, and take possession of all the spoils which they and their predecessors have wrung from you and your ancestors. Put an end to their Parliaments and Courts. Blot out forever their statute books. They contain little or nothing else than the records of their villanies. Free England and Ireland, and thus all the rest of the empire, of the tyrants and robbers that are plundering, enslaving, and crushing, and starving you.

Sorry Anglo-Saxons, this post is not for you. It culminates in one of the most cutting anti-Anglo rants I’ve ever read. You can just skip to the last block quote if you are short on time. Its low effort on my behalf because I’m mostly just quoting Spooner, but its worth it. Lysander Spooner wrote this letter entitled Revolution: The Only Remedy for the Oppressed Classes of Ireland, England, and Other Parts of the British Empire. He is one of my favorite Anarchist writers and if you aren’t familiar with him already, well you should be.

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Covert Lokayata III: Orthodox Darshanas

(Click to go back to Part I: Doctrines)

(Click to go back to Part II: Proto-Materialism in Vedic and Tantric Traditions)

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Orthodox Hindu Schools

As anyone familiar with the orthodox Hindu darshanas knows, a belief in God is not a central feature of all orthodox schools of thought. Two of the orthodox Darshanas in particular seem distinctly rooted in materialism: Samkhya and Vaisheshika. Those are discussed below.

Early Samkhya:

Chattopadhyaya goes so far as to claim that:

“If the Sankhya philosophy were in the earlier times an explicit philosophical re-statement of the fundamental theoretical position implicit in Tantrism, and, if further, as we have aready tried to argue, the term Lokayata originally stood for the beliefs and practices broadly referred to as Tantrism, then original Sankhya may be viewed as the most important developmet of the Lokayata tradition in Indian philosophy. Silamka, the Jaina commentator, was justified in denying any basic difference between Sankhya and Lokayata. Sankara, too, made the Sankhya philosophers quote the authority of the Lokayatikas”[1]

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Gandhi Was Not a Theorist

Mahatma Gandhi portrait, 1931. Image Source: Wikimedia

Mahatma Gandhi portrait, 1931. Image Source: Wikimedia

In much of what I’ve recently read on Gandhi, there exists the impulse to find a unifying structure which underlies his thought. Most recently I’ve been reading Faisal Devji’s The Impossible Indian, and various essays by Akeel Bilgrami on Gandhi, which exhibit this trend.[1]

I think this recent impulse might be a reaction against an older mode of thought, which is now perceived as either outmoded, or unsophisticated. In the old paradigm, Gandhi was framed either as a shrewd politician, or an irrational mystic. Both these stereotypes lend themselves to portraying a disunified view of Gandhi’s thought in which either he is inconsistent for political or philosophical reasons.

The problem for me is that the old way of thinking about Gandhi, passé and rigid though they may be, contain much which is valuable. Given his triple identity as a political philosopher-politican-mystic, I’m not sure that we, even under charitable conditions, should expect a consistent system out of Gandhi.

Gandhi was a philosopher-politician: This is perhaps the most obvious fact about Gandhi. But as of late, he seems to be treated differently from other philosopher-politicians. Consider the following names: John Stuart Mill, Woodrow Wilson, the American Founding Father, Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin. It is completely normal for academics to acknowledge that these people had contradictions between their political theories, and their stated/enacted policies. Rather than doing intellectual gymnastics to explain how Gandhi can simultaneously support and decry fighting in World War 2, fighting in Kashmir, and a hypothetical Indian civil war, can we not just acknowledge that Gandhi often wrote with an eye towards political strategy?

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The “White Hindus” Phenomenon

Hello readers,

Today will be a short post. On October 5th I’ll be speaking at Princeton University in the practicioner section of this event titled: The “White Hindus” Phenomenon: A Symposium on Sanatana Dharma, Race, and Identity. I’ll be discussing the tensions of multiple identites (Hindu, non-Hindu. Indian, white), and also probing into how white Hindus sometimes come to unusual interpretations of the tradition. This link has all the information you’ll need. If you are interested in attending, please email the  Coordinator for Hindu Life at Princeton: vchander@princeton.edu

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Click to see full size image

Maybe I’ll see some of you there!

Akbar Commits Gestapo-style Medical Crimes in an Attempt at Rationalism

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Mughal Emperor Akbar, (1556-1605). Religious reformer and commissioner of freaky experiments. From the National Museum, New Delhi
Image source Indiapicks.com

When I was reading Abd al-Qadir Bada’uni’s history, Tarikh-i-Badauni in preparation for the last post I made on the Razmnamat, I came across an interesting passage. According to Bada’uni, Akbar carried out an early psychological experiment in infant seclusion. The history reads:

“In this year (989 H. [1581 AD]), in order to verify the circumstances of the case (of the man who heard without ears), an order was issued that several suckling infants should he kept in a secluded place far from habitations, where they should not hear a word spoken. Well-disciplined nurses were to be placed over them, who were to refrain from giving them any instruction in speaking, so as to test the accuracy of the tradition which says, “Every one that is born is born with an inclination to religion,” by ascertaining what religion and sect these infants would incline to, and above all what creed they would repeat. To carry out this order, about twenty sucklings were taken from their mothers for a consideration in money, and were placed in an empty house, which got the name of Dumb-house. After three or four years the children all came out dumb, excepting some who died there – thus justifying the name which had been given to the house.”[1]

Italics added

I had thought that for sure that Akbar must have been the first one to carry this experiment out. But I was wrong. It turns out that Psamtik I, Pharoh of Egypt from 664 – 610 BC, Frederick II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 1212–122, and James IV, King of Scotland from 1488–1513, all had beat Akbar to the punch. However, they all did it to discover which language the infants would end up speaking.[2] Akbar seems to be the first to try this with religion in mind.

I truly admire the impetus for this experiment. He was trying to obtain some scientific data on the question of religion by removing the variables of societal and parental conditioning from the equation. How modern! Of course, if he was trying to find the “true” religion via this method, the whole premise of the experiment is flawed. Even if people are inclined towards a particular religion without any conditioning, it doesn’t necessarily mean that religion is true. However, Bada’uni never hints at such a bold hypothesis, so I must conclude that it was a very admirable attempt at rational discovery of truths normally reserved for “revelation.”

Less admirable is the fact that he was willing to sacrifice the lives of several children to get the answer. This is the kind of thing I’d expect to read in a Nazi or Japanese war crimes tribunal. Were the deleterious effects of social and maternal deprivation not known at the time? Or did the concept of child abuse simply not exist in the 14-1500s, as Psychohistorians like Lloyd deMause would argue?

I’ve looked for other references to this experiment for more information, but have only been able to find this one reference from Bada’uni’s history. I’m also unclear on what he means by “the man who heard without ears.” I’m assuming it means a man who believed a religion without ever having heard it due to deafness. If anyone has more information put it in the comments please.

Hit “Continue reading” for citations.


(Edit: It has become evident that I need to substantiate the title of this piece. Sure, the Gestapo didn’t actually conduct the experiments, but neither did Akbar. The Gestapo was just Himmler’s tool for pressuring the medical establishment and doing logistical tasks like picking out the subjects. Regardless, a better title would have replaced “Gestapo” with “SS” or “Himmler.” I’ll probably change that at a later point in time)

[1] Elliot, Sir Henry Miers. The history of India, as Told by its own Historians: The Muhammadan period, Hertford, 1873, Page 533

[2] Sułek, Antoni. The Experiment of Psammetichus: Fact, Fiction, and Model to Follow, Journal of the History of Ideas, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1989), pp. 645-651