Ancient Indian Aristocratic Republics


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


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)


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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Hindu Iconography from Far Central Asia

I already made a post about Hindu iconography in Japan, as expressed primarily in Shingon Buddhism. Now I’ll look to the west. As in the east, Hindu iconography appears in an ancient and intermixed state alongside other forms of iconography. In this case the context is Manichean, Zoroastrian, Greek, indigenous, and Buddhist. In many spots it gets hard to distinguish the border between iconographical forms as they tend to blend together into syncretic representations. It really is a historically unique scenario which produced such a melting pot of aesthetic trends. In any case the locations of these images, in a loose sense, define the high water mark of Hindu cultural expansion into Western Asia (Irredentists eat your heart out).

For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll ignore the art of Gandhara (inner Afghanistan/Peshawar region) which is already well known and should really be considered Indian art rather than an export. I’ll only be looking at art from north and west of Gandhara I’ll also be ignoring images of the deity Mitra/Mithra, because there are simply too many of them as this deity became very popular in the west and evolved its own well developed cult in Europe which is really a very different phenomenon than the diffusion of Shiva, Ganesha, or Parvati imagery in Western Asia. Due to the nature of the subject, some of the sourcing on these images or information is sketchy, but I’ll flag that when it is relevant.

Kushan Culture



Bactria, 320 BC. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The following pieces are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They are all from the same archeological find, so I’ll only list that information in the first caption.


Panel fragment with the god Shiva/Oesho. Period:Kushan Date:ca. 3rd century A.D. Geography:Bactria, Culture:Kushan Medium:Terracotta, gouache Dimensions:H. 57.2 cm, W. 41.6 cm, D. 5.7 cm Classification:Ceramics-Paintings. Source: The Met

Company Painting

Here is an example of the style of painting which emerged in India under the British East India Company:

Great Indian Fruit Bat

Date: ca. 1777–82
Geography: India, Calcutta
Culture: Colonial British
Medium: Pencil, ink, and opaque watercolor on paper
Dimensions: Mat size: Ht. 27 1/4 in. (69.2 cm)
W. 35 1/2 in. (90.2 cm)

“In 1777, Sir Elijah Impey, chief justice of Bengal between 1774 and 1782, and his wife, Lady Mary, hired local artists to record the specimens of Indian flora and fauna they collected at their estate in Calcutta. Over the next five years, at least 326 paintings of plants, animals, and birds were made for the Impeys. On most of these works, the name of one of three artists—Bhawani Das, Shaykh Zayn al-Din, or Ram Das—appears along with the Hindi name of the animal and the phrase, in English, “In the collection of Lady Impey at Calcutta.” Although this painting bears no such inscription, it is closely related to another painting of a bat by Bhawani Das, and it has always been associated with Impey patronage. One can imagine Bhawani Das and the anonymous artist of this painting working side by side, observing the animals, but whereas Bhawani Das’ painting depicts a tawny-colored female bat centered on the page with both wings outstretched, his fellow artist has created an asymmetrical composition in shades of gray and black of an emphatically male bat with one wing dramatically unfurled.” (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Quite a looker isn’t he? I recently saw an interesting corner of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which I hadn’t seen before. It was a room labeled “Company Painting in Nineteenth-Century India.” For some reason I just hadn’t come across this room in prior wanderings. I decided to show you all some of the drawings and paintings I saw, with some historically related works interspersed for comparison.

The Company paintings are worthy of our notice because they reflect Indian aesthetic culture in this fascinating, relatively narrow slice of time between the Mughal state and the British state, when India was under Company rule. Mughal trained painters were able to modify their craft to suit British tastes, but this slight change  put them (generally speaking) out of the genre of imaginative, decorative court art and into the genre of scientific sketches, administrative records, or more rarely, a sort of elite tourist kitsch. The Indian artists in this collection have been forced by circumstance to depict less conventionally beautiful plants and animals, and in a more realistic style. The cultural change from luxuriant Mughal court system into the impersonal knowledge aggregating machine of the colonial period is reflected in painting. Its pretty cool.

They are also fascinating because it shows us a period in Indian history where British artists suddenly join Hindus, Muslims in a shared aesthetic genre depicting the Indic subject matter. Take a look at these scientific drawings of plants for example:

Ashoka Tree Flower, Leaves, Pod, and Seed

Date: first half 19th century
Geography: India, probably Calcutta
Culture: Colonial British
Medium: Opaque watercolor on paper
Dimensions: Page: H. 23 1/4 in. (59.1 cm) W. 17 5/8 in. (44.8 cm)

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Hegel on India and Hinduism

I was reading Hegel a while back and I thought my dear readers might want to see some of his content. At the end of this introductory bit I have just excerpted in total “Section II: India” and “Section II: (Continued) India Buddhism”  from “Part 1: The Oriental World” of G.W.F Hegel’s The Philosophy of History. So if you’d like to skip my blather, go down to the section “On India” right below the winged Zoroastrian symbol.

Introduction and preliminary analysis: 

Everyone seems to dislike that Hegel is overly obtuse and abstract, but when he discusses history he is actually taking in very concrete terms most of the time. This is not exactly a reliable source for specific information about Indian history or philosophy. In some ways it is a better study of how Europeans see India than it is a study of India. It suffers from a caricatured view of India as a land of contradiction, chaos, and conflict. For the most part his characterizations of India aren’t totally baseless though, as stereotypes often have a basis in reality. They are just stereotypical exaggerations or generalizations which lack any sort of nuance or qualification. He also seems to uncritically accept very early orientalist insights in Sanskritic culture as fact, and as reflective of the Indian society of the 1800s. To some degree this is excusable because Sanskrit translations and real detailed historical knowledge of India were still undergoing development in Europe. He had to have been over reliant on early translations of the Vedas, the Dharmashastras (particularly Manu), the Pali canon perhaps, and the writings of some few high-philosophers. Given his time period, his knowledge of Indian philosophy is actually impressive. He writes some rather detailed information here about the Samkhya, Nyaya, and Vaisheshika schools, so he at least knew that much. Yet perhaps I am being too generous to Hegel here. It is somewhat baffling to me how he derives an extreme idealist worldview from these three schools, Vaisheshika in particular. It was reading those philosophical schools which persuaded me that India has a sublimated tradition of naturalism. I feel that if he was also familiar with them it should have occurred to him that Hindu idealism is at least alloyed with a rationalistic form of naturalism.

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The Islamization of Bengal

bengali final8 1

The cover of Richard Eaton’s book, upon which this post is premised.

I just reread Richard Eaton’s book The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, and thought I’d make some observations on the theory it purports, and some of the implications. The entire book is available for free: Here.

The Theory

Eaton’s theory of Islamization rests on a much broader theory of how Bengali religion; both Hindu and Muslim was transmitted. It goes more or less as follows: New agricultural technologies, systems of land tenure, and legal/governing institutions were the main drivers behind the spread of both religions. Initially Brahmins, but later Sufis would head into a new region of the delta and establish themselves as local elites responsible for agricultural management (a similar pattern can be seen in the Deccan). Often the Sufi leader and his institution, or a temple institution would get a land grant from the state for this purpose, but this was not always the case. These religiously affiliated colonists brought with them new agricultural technologies from the west, which they would then implement locally. By some arrangement, religious elites became aligned with political elites. This was either because a preexisting regime sent out the Brahmins/Sufis in the first place, or because the regime sought to co-opt them once they had gained a following, and increased local agricultural productivity. Along with religion, the Brahmins and Sufis would bring in with them notions of law, languages, trading customs, etc. which brought eastern regions into the orbit of Indic civilization. In western Bengal this happened in the Epic period. In north Bengal, this happened in the historical period just preceding the Mughals. Due to its lateness, the land tenure system in the north was more primitive, relying on corvée labor rather than taxation in the form of crops or currency which existed in the west of Bengal. In the east and south of the delta however, no organized system of agriculture, government, or religion existed prior to the Mughal period. It was what we would call “aboriginal.” The main driver of this entire pattern was the eastward shift of the Gangetic delta between ~1400 and 1800, which rendered old land less productive, and forced people to confront the task of clearing and farming the forest. This moving river system thus constitutes a frontier in multiple dimensions; ecological, political, technological, and religious. All of these frontiers long predate the presence of Islam in the subcontinent, and can be easily discerned in earlier Sanskrit depictions of the region. Most of Bengal is described as mleccha territory outside the domain of “Aryavarta” in Sanskrit texts like the Baudhayana Dharmasutra (5th c BCE). Thus, Islamization is just the most recent episode in a phenomenon, which has roots in the Bronze or Iron Age.

bengali final8

From the book. Maps illustrating the eastward migration of the Bengal delta.

Other Theories

This general pattern explains the population drift, and the transmission of new religion and technology eastward over time. But here it might be necessary to back up a step. The broadest problem, which Eaton is trying to solve, is the uncanny distribution of Muslim populations in the subcontinent. It is striking on a demographic map that Muslims are concentrated on the eastern and western flanks of north India, but are thinly spread out in the middle. Eaton lays out the prior 4 theories to explain Islamization before presenting his own. They are as follows: Continue reading