Republics Of The Past – Part 1

Mahajanpadas in India (Avantiputra7/Wikimedia Commons) 
  • Can it be that proto republics and ancient forms of democracy were part of an old heritage of Indic civilisation, and citizens of modern India simply harked back to an old reality?

India became a modern republic, a sovereign, democratic republic, in 1950 amidst widespread skepticism about the durability of both democracy and the republican form of government in the country. It is now 2017 and the Indian Republic not only survives but thrives. What explains the durability of the form of government embraced by the country 67 years ago? Many explanations have been offered as to why these two political forms flourished in the fledgling state beset with regional, linguistic, religious and caste conflicts.

This article will explore political formations in ancient India and the extent to which proto-republican states can be said to have existed in ancient India. Can it be that proto republics and ancient forms of democracy were part of an old heritage of Indic civilisation and citizens of modern India simply harked back to an old reality? The focus of this article is republics of ancient India; democracy in ancient India deserves a separate article and will be dealt with here only tangentially.

In searching for the origins of modern democratic and republican systems of governance, historians often tend to look at the republics of Ancient Greece. However, evidence of such republics can also be found, arguably, in other civilisations such as ancient India.

Most of the textual evidence for the existence of these ganas comes from Sanskrit and Pali texts. Apart from Vedic and Pauranic texts, Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Greco-Roman descriptions of India during and after the times of Chandragupta Maurya, Buddhist and Jaina works and the Mahabharat offer compelling evidence for these ganas.

These ancient texts are not easy to interpret, which, along with a lack of physical evidence for Vedic kingdoms, makes the task of reaching conclusions on the nature of republicanism in ancient India complicated. However the contours of political history do become clearer and kings and religious teachers mentioned in different texts can be identified as real historical figures as can the different kingdoms around the 6th century BCE. Numismatic evidence can be adduced to bolster the argument for the existence of these kingdoms.

To establish the extent to which the forms of government of some of the mahajanpadas could be considered republics we will look at historiography, evidence of the existence of these ancient kingdoms and the characteristics of their political practices.

Historiographical Background

After the publication of Buddhist India by Professor Rhys Davids in 1903, the work that first remarked on the republican institutions of this era, many nationalistic Indian scholars such as K P Jayaswal and K P Mukherjee took up research in the field, in part to prove that there was a basis for democracy and republicanism in India and that the political institutions of ancient India were at least as good as those of ancient Greece. This was in the background of the struggle against the colonising power, Great Britain.

At the same time, there was also a strong resistance to the possibility of proto-democracies in India by other historians, K M Shembavnekar, for instance. (He put forward the view that a gana means nothing but a collection of animals!) To maintain the status quo, so that ancient Greece would be the earliest civilisation to have even remotely democratic governance, and India would be seen as the cradle of oriental despotism, Western historians were unwilling to consider evidence in a non-partisan manner. Later writings of those like J P Sharma adopted a more dispassionate approach and there has been a fresh look in past years.

Evidential Basis

The Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda apart from certain other samhitas are the earliest sources, where we find first mention of early forms of democratic and republican institutions. The Shanti Parva of the Mahabharat also mentions proto-republics.

A later text that describes the proto-republics is the Ashtadhyayi by Panini (4th century BCE). Panini called people of the city-states of the time janapadins. He clearly noted that while some of these people were subject to the rule of a monarch, others governed themselves in a republican fashion. Both the Ashtadhyayi and the MajjimaNikaya of the Buddhist canon use the terms gana and sangha interchangeably in the political context to mean a proto-republic. Gana, sangha and ganasangha signify broadly the same political formation.

The Buddhist Pali Canon contains many details of daily life in India at the time of the Buddha and mentions clans that made public decisions in assemblies or parliaments. These accounts strongly suggest that republicanism was a common feature in the governance of certain mahajanpadas that existed at the time with the political system being described as fairly inclusive.

Buddhist and Jain Prakrit sources list the names of the 16 powerful mahajanapadas extant in the sub-continent at the time; they are divided into rajyas or monarchies and ganas or proto-republics which were not ruled by a king, but perhaps by oligarchies where power was exercised by a group of people.

The Vajjis of eastern India, north of the Ganga river and extending up to Nepal and the Mallas of Kusinara and Pava were two of the most important ‘ganasanghas’. The Sakyas of Kapilavastu, the Koliyas of Devdaha, the Bulis of Alakappa, the Kalamas of Kesaputta, the Moriyas of Pipphalivahana and the Bhaggas of Sumsumara Hill are some of the other ganansanghas mentioned by Buddhist texts. The Arthashstra mentions the Lichchavis, the Mallas, the Madrakas, the Kurus and Panchalas amongst others.

The Arthashastra, which can be taken to be a manual for the Maurya monarchs, also mentions ganas specifically in Book 11. It details the special methods to be used to subdue such kingdoms, a glimpse into the methods due to which, perhaps, the proto-republics died out and were subsumed into the Mauryan Empire.

When Alexander of Macedon’s forces arrived at the borders of the Indian subcontinent between 327-324 BCE, records state that they discovered large territories governed by non-monarchical means. One of these kingdoms, that of the Mallas, offered the toughest resistance to Alexander in his march across the north west.

Information on ganasanghas in the references to the Indika of Megasthenes and from works of Diodorus Siculus and Arrian seems to correspond with the time and place at which the republican mahajanpadas could have existed, lending credence to the claim that some of the states of the time had a proto-republican system of governance.

Interestingly, some of the names of the ganas mentioned in the sources above can be cross-referenced. For instance, the Arthashastra mentions the Vajjis and Mallas of the Buddhist sources and these are also mentioned in Greco Roman writings.

The ganasangha form of government appeared to be concentrated in the Himalayan foothills of eastern India while the Gangetic valley nurtured monarchies; these were parallel political formations. It has been hypothesised that ganasanghas of the Vedic period found themselves pushed to the east as monarchies became more and more powerful in the post-Vedic period.

The Vajji-Lichchavis with their capital at Vaishali were the most powerful ganasangha and Magadha the most powerful monarchy. Their clash for supremacy was inevitable and it was only after the defeat of Vaishali that the monarchical system took root across the sub-continent. Magadha laid the ground for the future emergence and consolidation of the Haryankas, the Nandas and then the Mauryans who united the sub continent under the peacock flag.

In terms of physical evidence it is only in the centuries of the common era that names of ganasanghas such as the Yaudheyas, Malavas, Uddhehikas, Arjunayansetc occur on coins of the period and also in inscriptions. Samudragupta famously married a Lichchavi princess and was called a Lichchavi-dauhitra (grandson of the Lichchavis) in inscriptions pointing to the still resonating importance of the ganas upto Gupta times. It is a different matter that it was probably the Guptas who finally wiped out the ganas from the face of Indian political history.

In the next part of the article we will consider the practices and characteristics of ganasanghas which will throw light on their functioning in the political or, alternatively, martial or economic field. Were they proto-republics or proto-corporations or martial groups living by force of arms?

This article has been written with inputs from Vivaswat Ojha, sophomore, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont.

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