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ANCIENT INDIA: THE BEGINNING OF DEMOCRACY ?

"We have realised that a country as vast and varied as India cannot be classified under one label or another. Today, democracy conveys to us the equality of all people to participate in every level in the development of their country and the functioning of government. The seeds of democracy sown in ancient India are now the foundation for a legitimate system of government that is highly decentralised and fosters freedom and fairness." Varshaa Surabhi Jena describes how the foundations of democracy were laid in ancient India.

With over a billion people and their composite cultural and linguistic diversity, the Indian democracy is truly a dynamic system. Our history textbooks tell us that after over 3000 years of monarchy and 200 years under the British, India adopted the path of democracy and held her first general elections in 1952. However, in-depth interpretations of ancient scriptures such as the Vedas and Panini's Astadhyayi might tell us a different story. Did India's 'tryst with destiny' begin after freeing herself from the shackles of the British, or were the trinity of justice, liberty and equality already ingrained deep within her?


The history of India is veiled by antiquity. Indians often consider democracy to be a foreign construct, with Greece considered the birthplace of modern-day representative democracy. This is because the world history of democracy pretty much revolves around the Western nations, mainly Europe and America. However, the notion of "government by discussion" is universal. This means that groups of people with common interests make decisions that affect their lives through debate, consultation, and voting. All the indigenous ancient Indian literature from before 400A.D. have been preserved as part of a religious tradition, be it Vedic, Buddhist or Jain. The Manu-Smrti and Kautilya's Arthashastra are considered classic expressions of ancient Brahmanical political and social theory. These revolve heavily around the varna system, the dharma of members of different castes, who all serve the 'king'.


Therefore, from the Brahmanical lens, monarchy seemed to be the law of the land.

Digging deeper into ancient history, we find the Greek and Roman accounts of India, majorly during Alexander the Great's invasion of India around 300 B.C. This literature highlighted numerous villages, cities and states governed as oligarchies and democracies. Research into the Buddhist Pali Canon confirmed this idea of widespread republicanism. The Pali Canon contains the earliest version of the Buddhist scriptures, established around 350BC and provides detailed insights into life in ancient India. T.W. Rhys Davids, the leading Pali scholar, pointed out in his book Buddhist India that the Canon depicted public decision making in assemblies or parliaments by many clans that dominated extensive and populous territories. Rhys's reconstruction of a republican India is further supported by Buddhist works in Sanskrit, such as the Astadhyayi by Panini. Thus, while the works of twentieth-century scholars give us a monarchical view of ancient political life in India, the reality is much more complex. Kings ruled the kingdoms but were guided by an assembly of advisors. Running parallel, there also existed self-rule by members of a traders' guild or a village, with a common set of interests. This form of cooperative self-government is quite similar to classical Greek republicanism.


Well, what were these republican polities like? As per Panini, the warrior clan, ksatriyas, dominated all the states of northern India, who managed the political life. Some of them were under a king but ran their affairs in a republican manner. These ksatriyas could sometimes designate power to warlord-kings who enjoyed sovereignty to some extent. At first glance, this may seem extremely undemocratic, with power concentrated in the hands of a few patriarchs from the lineages the warrior caste. This structure is similar to the one followed in ancient Athens, and there are other factors, which give it a democratic outlook. There existed other peaceful groups with economic goals or religious sentiments, known as a Gana or a Sangha. The working members made decisions via discussions in these self-governing organisations. The members of a sovereign Gana or Sangha interacted with each other during an assembly session. Panini gives us the concepts of voting, collective decision-making and the division of assemblies into smaller subgroups or committees with well-defined purposes.


It is highly remarkable that between 500 B.C. and 400 A.D., one could find republics almost anywhere in India. Moreover, the several co-existing republics of India were probably more extensive and populous than the poleis of the Greeks. Despite compelling evidence and reliable sources, several historians are still yet to come to terms with the existence of widespread republicanism in ancient India. The existence of Ganas and Sanghas are dismissed as ‘tribals’ or ‘clans’. This gross generalisation has a severe prejudiced and derogatory undertone to it. In his book Hindu Polity, KP Jayaswal pointed out that although the Ganas and Sanghas may have had a tribal origin, they had long passed the tribal stage of society, and were much more complex in functioning. Historians tend to brush aside this rich mine of cultural context and shift their focus to the development of the Brahmanic culture, monarchies and oligarchies that followed.


On the whole, the existence of Indian republicanism was a surprising discovery of the late twentieth century. The implications of this are yet to be fully processed, and the immense scope it holds for the development of modern human government. We have come a long way since we rediscovered democracy in 1950. We have realised that a country as vast and varied as India cannot be classified under one label or another. Today, democracy conveys to us the equality of all people to participate in every level in the development of their country and the functioning of government. The seeds of democracy sown in ancient India are now the foundation for a legitimate system of government that is highly decentralised and fosters freedom and fairness.


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